EMDR: What is it???
EMDR: What is it?
Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT
Clinical Director, KPS
I field frequent questions about a therapy modality called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), so I wanted to address what this is and who it can benefit, as it is certainly a bit different from other therapy modalities. EMDR was originally developed to assist those with trauma, though it is now used for many additional struggles that people may face (substance abuse, phobias, depression, eating disorders, etc.) The theory behind EMDR is that trauma is stored in a different part of the brain than other non-traumatizing memories. And in fact, trauma memories activate different parts of the brain than non-traumatic memories, and traumatic experiences have lasting effects on the brain (Bremner, 2006). The purpose of EMDR is to connect the trauma memories with what the person knows to be true now- adaptive information that can allow the person to move beyond the trauma. It is important to note: the purpose of EMDR is not to make you forget what happened! You will still remember what happened, but the memory will not carry the same fear, negative self-beliefs, and triggers as it does when it is unprocessed.
EMDR looks different from other therapy treatments, as it follows a very specific protocol, which involves both recall of the memory and bilateral stimulation of the brain. Bilateral stimulation can be back-and-forth eye movements, auditory stimulation through headphones in alternating ears, or tapping on alternating sides of the body, often through holding “tappers.”. The EMDR therapist will ask you to bring up the traumatic memory through a specific series of questions, helping you identify the current worst part of the memory, the negative beliefs about yourself, the feelings you hold about this memory, and the bodily sensations that go along with this memory. Then bilateral stimulation will be added and the EMDR therapist will check in with you periodically to help you observe your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations as your brain does the work in processing this memory. Bilateral stimulation is actually something that our bodies go through naturally every night under normal circumstances; an important part of the sleep cycle is REM sleep, which is Rapid Eye Movement sleep (Cleveland Clinic, 2020). Our eyes move back and forth rapidly while we sleep, which is what the bilateral stimulation mimics during EMDR. Additionally, multiple studies demonstrate that it is during sleep that our memories from the day are sent to “long-term storage” in the brain (Born, 2010). Remember the Pixar movie Inside Out? At night, one character pulls the lever to send all the memories to long-term storage after Riley falls asleep.
Though this is a basic explanation of how EMDR works, it is important to note that there are many other things that will take place in this process. Before any eye movements/tapping begins, the EMDR therapist is trained to make sure that the client has the coping skills and resources needed to do the work, because trauma work is heavy. The EMDR therapist is also responsible for checking in throughout the process to make sure that the client is not becoming overwhelmed or stuck in the past. There are strategies that we can engage in if the work is becoming too overwhelming to make sure that the client is able to handle the process. The EMDR therapist is also responsible for helping the client to contain the work and transition back to the rest of their day; we do not want anyone to leave the office still feeling overwhelmed and unable to function, so EMDR therapists are given skills and techniques to help clients make this transition. Also, many times those who have experienced trauma also experience dissociation, which is the brain’s survival instinct to protect the person by shutting down traumatic memories. Dissociation can take many forms: distractibility, feeling like one is looking down on their body, feeling disconnected from one’s body, feeling numb, forgetting things, having the sensation of floating, hearing voices, etc. EMDR therapists are trained to help clients to handle dissociation during this process, as obviously bringing up memories from the past can be very upsetting and trigger the brain to engage in a dissociative response. There have been many studies on the effectiveness of EMDR- for a brief paragraph summary of each of over 130 research studies, see https://www.emdr.com/research-overview/#meta-analyses. The research overwhelmingly supports EMDR as an effective method for reducing PTSD symptoms in a relatively short period of time compared with other modalities, with lasting effects at follow-up study.
At Kranz Psychological Services, we have multiple clinicians who have been trained in EMDR. The training is an extensive process. To hold the Basic Certificate in EMDR, a counselor will complete 20 hours of instruction, 20 hours of practicum, and 10 hours of consultation. They are then able to utilize EMDR with clients without supervision. Some EMDR trained therapists go on to obtain the EMDR Certified Therapist designation, which requires (among other things) 20 additional hours of consultation, 50 additional hours of practicing EMDR, 12 additional hours of training, and multiple letters of recommendation. Please call our office if you would like to get connected with a therapist providing EMDR. If you would like to continue to learn more about EMDR, please check out the following videos:
How EMDR Works: a two-minute explanation from the EMDR association in the Netherlands.
Introduction to EMDR Therapy: a ten-minute video from the EMDR International Association (the organization which also credentials EMDR Certified Therapists).
How EMDR Psychotherapy Works in Your Brain: a video detailing some of the ways that trauma memories and EMDR affects the brain.
Born, J. (2010). Slow-wave sleep and the consolidation of long-term memory. The world journal of biological psychiatry: the official journal of the World Federation of Societies of Biological Psychiatry, 11 Suppl 1, 16–21. https://doi.org/10.3109/15622971003637637
Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445–461. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2006.8.4/jbremner
Cleveland Clinic (2020, December 7). Sleep Basics. Retrieved on May 1, 2023, from
EMDR Institute, Inc. (n.d.). Research Overview. https://www.emdr.com/research-overview/
EMDR International Association. (n.d.). About EMDR therapy. https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/