How EMDR Works

How EMDR Works

In 2013, I was certified in EMDR therapy. I found that using conventional talk therapies were helpful, but some clients found that while they understood logically what they needed to do, sometimes they just couldn’t get themselves to do it. It was like the emotional right-side of their brains didn’t talk to their logical left-side. It turns out, this is true! Studies have shown that the right-side of our brains understand symbols, images, smells and sounds, but doesn’t understand the language of our rational left-side.I know this from personal experience. I know about nutrition and the importance of eating healthy, yet there are times when my pleasure center wants candy or french fries! EMDR helps the two sides of the brain talk to one another.

What is EMDR and how does it work? Here are some answers that I think help to explain it.

What is EMDR?   Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

EMDR is a technique for processing past painful experiences and traumas so they may be integrated more adaptively and not cause the same level of emotional reaction.

Why does it work?

The way memory is stored in the brain is seen as the underlying basis of mental health problems because it is the basis of perception, attitude, and behavior. If unpleasant memories get stuck in the nervous system, they can cause distress. We all experience traumatic events in our lives and many times they resolve naturally so the memory is no longer troubling. However, sometimes, the trauma does not resolve itself. EMDR processes this disturbance to an adaptive resolution. The process approaches all material in the past (memory), the present (it’s effects on you today), and the future.

What will it be like?

The therapist will guide you through the EMDR process, which includes information gathering, defining the issues to be worked on, bilateral stimulation and feedback.

The bilateral stimulation is either bilateral movement of the eyes from side to side, physical movement from one hand to the other, or audio from one ear to the other, to activate neurological processing. In a session, this happens when the client follows the therapist’s fingers back and forth, holds tappers that vibrate from one hand to the other or wears a headset that beeps in one ear and then the other. Although the traditional way to work with EMDR is using eye movements, it has been shown that the different methods of bilateral stimulation are equally valid. You and your therapist will find the most effective way for you.

As you use bilateral stimulation to work through the problematic information and digest the old events: pictures, sensations, or emotions may arise. Your job is to notice them, just let them happen. Imagine that you are on a train and the scenery is passing by. Notice the landscape without trying to grab hold of it or make it significant.

How long does it take?

EMDR has proven to be an extremely efficient method of processing traumas, big and small. However, each person is unique and therefore the lengths of time will vary greatly. Most reports find EMDR to be faster than other methods of “trauma” resolution. This has been my experience as well.


I worked with a woman who was in a car accident. She was understandably very shaken up after the accident which happened in broad daylight. A huge truck came into her lane so she swerved and hit the guardrail going 65 miles per hour. Her car was totaled and she was in complete shock. She remembered vividly the sound of the car hitting the rail and the ambulance ride to the hospital. When she came to see me, she was experiencing nightmares and flashbacks whenever she tried to drive further than around the block from her house. It was impacting her life in every way possible. In our sessions, while getting some history of other traumatic events, she learned some tools she could use when not in session if disturbing memories emerged. We then set up the target of the accident to work on using EMDR. We worked together for three months on a weekly basis. Each time she came in, I would ask her to rate how much the memory of the accident bothered her on a scale from 0-10, 10 being the worst. Over the course of treatment, the level went down to a 0 and although the thought of the accident was still of course upsetting, it didn’t have the same emotional charge that it had when we began.  

Who is it best for?

In my training when I experienced EMDR, I found that it helped my thoughts and the connections of those thoughts happen much faster. It also surprised me how well it works to improve processing of memories and experiences. EMDR works in treating anxiety, depression, trauma, and PTSD.  If you suffer from any of these, EMDR therapy might be a helpful for you. EMDR therapy is something that we offer, so do not hesitate to contact us to make a counseling appointment.

Photo by Norman Toth on Unsplash

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