EMDR Therapy explained

EMDR Therapy - Toolshero

EMDR therapy: this article explains EMDR therapy in a practical way. The article starts with the definition and general explanation of EMDR, followed by situations in which this therapy can be of value to patients. You can also read about the benefits and drawbacks of this therapy, as well as learn about the misconceptions of EMDR and the criticism on this treatment. Enjoy reading!

What is EMDR therapy?

Meaning and definition of EMDR therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy form that involves bilateral stimulation. The therapy was developed to help people overcome traumatic experiences and other upsetting life experiences.

EMDR therapy includes a range of elements from different treatments, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychodynamic therapy. It has been shown to be effective for a wide variety of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and addiction.

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EMDR therapy is guided by the belief that negative thought, emotion, and behavior can be relieved by processing the traumatic memories that underlie them. It’s designed to activate the natural healing process in the brain through alternating eye movements, sounds, or taps.

Origins of EMDR therapy

EMDR therapy was first developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, a clinical psychologist. Shapiro developed EMDR therapy while working towards her doctorate in English literature at the Graduate Theological Union in California.

Shapiro found that certain eye movements could reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts and emotions arising from her own personal trauma. She then tested the technique on others and found it effective in treating trauma-related symptoms.

Over the years, EMDR therapy has gained recognition as a legitimate and evidence-based therapy for a variety of mental illnesses. The therapy’s origins in the study of the human brain and psychology helped shape the therapy into what it is today.

A name often associated with the development of EMDR is Bessel van der Kolk. Van der Kolk did not develop EMDR therapy, but he did contribute to the scientific knowledge of trauma and the development of other innovative treatment methods, such as neurofeedback and sensorimotor therapy.

The U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have both recognized EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). EMDR has also been recognized as a recommended treatment for PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association.

Whom is EMDR therapy for?

EMDR therapy is used to treat a range of mental health conditions, including:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, phobias and generalized anxiety disorder
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Chronic pain and somatic disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Performance anxiety and other stress-related conditions
  • Relationship problems and attachment disorders

What events can cause people to have problems with processing?

There are many examples of a disturbing event that can lead to cognitive processing disorders in humans, including:

  • Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes or floods
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Witnessing or being involved in a serious accident
  • War or political violence
  • Terrorist attacks
  • Rape or sexual abuse
  • Sudden loss of a loved one
  • Medical trauma, such as serious illness or injury
  • Childhood neglect or abandonment
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Violence or harassment in the workplace
  • Being the victim of a crime, such as robbery or assault
  • Hostage situations or kidnapping
  • Combat acts or trauma related to military service

How exactly does an EMDR therapy session work?

During an EMDR therapy session, the therapist guides the patient through a series of standardized procedures. Here’s a general description of what a typical EMDR therapy session might include:

Stage 1: History and preparation

The EMDR therapist first takes a detailed anamnesis of the patient’s current symptoms and past experiences and explains the EMDR process. The therapist also teaches the patient coping skills and relaxation techniques that can be used during the session.

Stage 2: Assessment

The therapist identifies the specific traumatic or distressing memories that will be addressed during the EMDR session. The patient is asked to rate the intensity of their tension or discomfort associated with each memory on a scale of 0 to 10.

Stage 3: Desensitization

The EMDR therapist guides the patient through a series of eye movements, sounds, or other forms of bilateral stimulation while focusing on the traumatic memory. The patient is asked to let his or her mind go where it goes naturally during the process.

Stage 4: Installation

Once the patient’s tension associated with the memory has eased, the therapist will help the patient focus on a positive belief or feeling related to the memory. This positive belief or feeling is “installed” in the patient’s mind.

Stage 5: Body scan

The therapist guides the patient through a body scan, checking for any residual tension or discomfort.

Stage 6: Closure

The therapist makes sure the patient feels safe and comfortable before ending the session.

Stage 7: Reassessment

At the beginning of the next session, the therapist will assess how the patient is doing and reassess the intensity of their tension or discomfort related to the targeted memories.

The exact details of an EMDR therapy session can vary depending on the patient’s individual needs and the therapist’s approach.

EMDR example

For example, imagine there is a veteran who suffered severe trauma during his deployment to a war zone. Since his return from the army, he has suffered from anxiety attacks, nightmares, irritability and avoidance behavior. He avoids situations that remind him of the trauma and has difficulty forming social relationships.

After a diagnostic process, he is diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. He gets a recommendation for EMDR. During the therapy sessions, the therapist works with the veteran to process and desensitize the traumatic memories.

The therapist asks the veteran to think about the trauma while performing bilateral stimulation, for example by moving the veteran’s eyes back and forth or by asking him to alternately tap his knees left and right. After each set of bilateral stimulation, the veteran is asked to report what thoughts, emotions and body sensations he experiences.

Gradually, the veteran notices that the intensity of his symptoms decreases and that he is better able to think about the trauma without being overwhelmed by anxiety and stress. He also gradually begins to get used to dealing with situations that previously reminded him of the trauma.

Ultimately, thanks to EMDR therapy, the veteran can reduce his PTSD symptoms and experience a better quality of life.

EMDR therapy costs

There is no clear answer to the question of how much EMDR therapy costs exactly. The costs depend on various factors.

Overall, a typical EMDR therapy session can cost between $75 and $250 per hour, although some therapists may charge more or less than this range. The total cost of EMDR therapy depends on the number of sessions required, which can vary depending on the individual patient and the severity of their condition.

In the Netherlands, EMDR therapy falls under basic mental health care and the costs are fully covered. Insurers do require there to be a post-traumatic stress syndrome, so a referral from your GP is needed. In the US it depends on your personal health insurance whether or not EMDR is covered.

Benefits of EMDR therapy and treatment effects

EMDR therapy can provide several benefits:

Effective for trauma-related disorders

EMDR therapy is proven to be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related disorders.

Faster treatment

EMDR therapy can lead to faster relief of symptoms compared to traditional psychotherapy.

Less intensity of emotions

EMDR can help reduce the intensity of negative emotions associated with traumatic memories.

Drawbacks and dangers of EMDR therapy

EMDR therapy can have drawbacks and dangers too:

Intensive treatment

EMDR therapy can be an intensive treatment and can sometimes be very emotional for patients.

Temporary worsening of symptoms

Some patients may experience a temporary worsening of symptoms during EMDR treatment.

Limited suitability

EMDR therapy may not be appropriate for all patients, especially those with serious mental illness or taking medications that affect cognitive function.

Lack of scientific evidence

While EMDR therapy has been shown to be effective for PTSD and other trauma-related disorders, there is less scientific evidence for the use of EMDR for other conditions, such as anxiety disorders or depression.

Myths and misconceptions of the EMDR therapy

A common myth is that EMDR therapy is a form of hypnosis or mind control. This is not true. EMDR is a structured therapy that includes bilateral stimulation such as eye movements, taps, or sounds. The goal is to help traumatized individuals process memories. The therapist does not direct the client’s thoughts or actions.

Another myth is that EMDR is a one-time treatment that can cure PTSD. This is also false. Some people experience significant improvement after just a few sessions, but EMDR is not a quick fix and often requires multiple sessions to achieve lasting results.

Some people also believe that EMDR can erase memories or change a person’s personality. This is not the case. EMDR does not erase memories, but it helps individuals process traumatic memories in a more adaptive way so that they no longer cause distressing symptoms. It may be that such a burden has been lifted from the shoulders of those people that their environment notices changes. However, this has nothing to do with personality changes.

Criticism of EMDR therapy

Some critics of EMDR therapy believe that the effectiveness of the therapy is not due to the bilateral stimulation, but rather to other factors such as the therapeutic relationship between the client and therapist or the placebo effect. They also claim that the theory behind EMDR is not supported by strong scientific evidence.

Others have noted that the therapy can be expensive and time-consuming, which may limit accessibility for some individuals.

Despite these critiques, many trauma and mental health experts continue to support EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD.

The therapy has been endorsed by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization, and many studies have shown its effectiveness in reducing PTSD symptoms.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about EMDR therapy? Have you ever followed EMDR therapy yourself, or do you know someone who has an experience with this? What other forms of therapy are you familiar with? Do you think it’s heavy to relive bad experiences? What other tips or comments can you share?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Hase, M. (2021). The structure of EMDR therapy: A guide for the therapist. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 660753.
  2. Oren, E. M. D. R., & Solomon, R. (2012). EMDR therapy: An overview of its development and mechanisms of action. European Review of Applied Psychology, 62(4), 197-203.
  3. Shapiro, F. (2012). EMDR therapy: An overview of current and future research. European Review of Applied Psychology, 62(4), 193-195.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2023). EMDR Therapy. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/psychology/emdr-therapy/

Original publication date: 05/08/2023 | Last update: 05/08/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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