What is EMDR therapy?

This was mentioned by my therapist at a session this week. She introduced it to me as a possible treatment for the psychological trauma associated with my amputation. As you can imagine, I was curious to find out exactly what it was!

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What is EMDR therapy?

“Most individuals wonder what actually occurs in a typical EMDR session. There are eights phases of treatment and the initial one focuses on taking a thorough client history followed by a preparation stage. In the Rapid Eye Movement portion, the client focuses on a troubling memory and identifies the belief he has about himself connected to this negative memory (for example, in dealing with a rape, the person may believe “I am dirty”). The individual then formulates a positive belief that he would like to have about himself (“I am a worthwhile and good person in control of my life.”). All the physical sensations and emotions that accompany the memory are identified. The individual then goes over the memory while focusing on an external stimulus that creates bilateral (side to side) eye movement. This is most often achieved by watching the therapist moving a finger. After each set of bilateral movements, the individual is asked how he feels. This process continues until the memory is no longer disturbing.

The individual is processing the trauma with both hemispheres of the brain stimulated. The chosen positive belief is then installed, via bilateral movement, to replace the negative one. Each session normally lasts for about one hour. It is believed that EMDR works because the “bilateral stimulation” by-passes the area of the brain that has become stuck due to the trauma and is preventing the left side of the brain from self-soothing the right side of the brain.

During this procedure, clients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long-held negative thoughts about the self that have grown out of the original traumatic event. For example, an assault victim may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, he is now safe, that the event is really over, and, as a result, he can regain a general sense of safety in his world.”

From Centre for Discovery.com 2019

So, this all sounds amazing, but I was also reading it with some serious doubt, and eye rolling. So off I went to Google Scholar to look for some research to back this all up.

Origins of EMDR

Dr. Francine Shapiro serendipitously discovered EMDR Therapy in 1987 while she was walking in a park, and noticed that she had some upsetting thoughts and feelings that suddenly disappeared. She was puzzled by this and decided to find out why. As a graduate student studying psychology she decided to research what was happening for her more closely. She began experimenting and observed that when she moved her eyes rapidly back and forth while thinking of something disturbing, the disturbance began to go away. She eventually developed a protocol that could be duplicated and studied, which is now known as EMDR Therapy (or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy). Quoted from the Maeberger Institute website

Research on EMDR therapy

Many individuals who survive traumatic experiences develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and related psychological problems. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an effective treatment for such disorders.

EMDR: An Evidence-Based Treatment for Victims of Trauma, Solomon, Solomon & Heidi, 2009 (Full article https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15564880903227495)

Seven of 10 studies reported EMDR therapy to be more rapid and/or more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. 

The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences, F Schapiro, 2014 (Full article https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951033/)

 EMDR is a useful treatment intervention both in the immediate aftermath of disaster as well as later (referring to 9/11)

EMDR Therapy Following the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: A Community-Based Intervention Project in New York City, American Psychological Association, 2016 (Full article https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2005-01974-002)

Regarding the effectiveness, the studies that investigated EMDR treatment of PTSD reported significant
decreases in PTSD symptoms, with reported reductions in PTSD diagnosis, ranging from 36%to 94%–95%

The Status of EMDR Therapy in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder 30 Years After Its Introduction, Journal of EMDR 2019 (Full article https://connect.springerpub.com/content/sgremdr/13/4/261.full.pdf)

I even found a book written by Dr Schapiro, the founder of EMDR therapy: taking control of your Life – F Schapiro.

There was little on Google Scholar to contradict its effectiveness and those articles that did were earlier in date and stated more direct comparisons with other therapies needed to be done (referring back 15-20 years).


This is a very new therapy (mid 1980’s) with a substantial body of evidence to support it. Therefore it certainly will be interesting to see how this goes. The research suggests it has the potential to be very effective indeed.

Author: Melanie

I am a massage therapist and part time athlete, blogging life thru a disability lens. On wheels, with flipper and occasionally on feet.

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