EMDR Therapy and How It Works

EMDR therapy has helped millions of people to treat PTSD, depression, and anxiety. EMDR is an extensively studied form of mental health therapy. It’s highly recommended for people suffering from the effects of trauma or distressing memories.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a form of cognitive therapy that focuses more on mindfulness and reprocessing to make negative memories and feelings less distressing for patients.

During a therapy session, patients address their trauma while therapists direct the patient’s eye movement.

It’s a controversial, yet intensely studied, form of therapy that successfully treats PDSD, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues associated with trauma.

If you’re thinking about EMDR therapy, here are the facts you’ll need to make an informed decision about whether it’s right for you.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

In 1987, Francine Shapiro noticed a correlation between eye movement and desensitization. After experimenting with several patients, she realized this effect was not singular to herself.

After more trial and error, Shapiro found that the most therapeutic benefit comes from a combination of cognitive and exposure therapy.

Shapiro conducted a case study where 22 individuals with traumatic experiences received EMDR treatment. Half of the participants had treatment with eye movement therapy, and the other half had treatment without.

The group that received eye movement therapy in addition to exposure therapy had more positive results than the other group.

It wasn’t until 1989 that psychologists began studying PTSD and how to treat it. During that time, people became more aware of the effects that trauma can have on a person’s mental health. There was especially a lot of focus on veterans with PTSD.

As people were looking into treatment for PTSD, cognitive therapies like EMDR got even more attention. In addition to Shapiro’s studies, more studies supported claims of the effectiveness of EMDR therapy. The results found that it was effective in reducing the anxiety and negative feelings around certain traumatic events.

How Does EMDR Work?

Like talk therapy, EMDR counselling involves multiple sessions. The process has eight steps, and it usually takes 12 sessions to complete each step.

Though some patients experience symptom relief after one or two sessions, it typically takes several sessions before experiencing lasting relief.

Step One: Treatment Planning

In this step, patients discuss with their therapists what memories they would like treatment for and what results they’d like to get out of treatment.

During this time, your therapist may ask you to make a list of which memories negatively affect you right now in your life. These events can be specific (like sexual assault), or they can be broader (like, “I was bullied in school”).

Step Two: Therapy Prep 

During this time, therapists may help you get used to the equipment and techniques they use for the cognitive therapy sessions.

Starting a new therapy method can be an emotional time for patients, especially when they have to relive certain events. For that reason, therapists prep their patients for the upcoming therapy by giving them coping methods. Some of those methods may include breathing techniques or meditation.

That way, patients are more equipped to deal with their upcoming therapy and see immediate improvements in their life. Patients must be comfortable throughout the process.

Step Three: Assessment 

In the assessment step, therapists try to narrow down which specific memories to address with the patients. Typically these are the source of whatever symptoms the patient experiences. Therapists also try to define any negative sensations, like panic, associated with traumatic memories.

Step Four to Seven: Treatment 

The treatment takes up the bulk of EMDR sessions. During treatment, the therapist asks the patient to focus on a certain traumatic experience. They may use images or sounds to assist with this. Each session may begin as a continuation of the last session or focus on a new memory.

Before the therapy begins, therapists will ask you how you’re currently feeling. EMDR therapy is all about how your mind reacts to certain memories, so tracking your emotional reactions is a huge part of tracking progress.

Before beginning therapy, patients identify how that specific memory usually makes them feel, and how they’d like to react instead. Therapists will help patients come up with positive affirmations to replace the negative sensations with.

As the patient focuses on the memory, therapists give patients direction for how to move their eyes. Sometimes taps and other movements are part of the therapy as well. Some therapists use tools like a tapping machine or headphones.

Immediately after remembering the trauma and using eye movements to desensitize the memory, the therapist instructs the patient to clear their mind and express whatever emotion or thought comes to them.

After each trauma recalling, depending on their reaction to the memory, the therapist may ask to move onto another memory or recall the same memory again.

If at any point the patient feels overwhelmed by the memory, the therapist will help them come back to the present and relax.

As therapy persists, the memories should become less and less traumatizing for the patient. Eventually, there should be little to no negative reaction to the memory. Instead, we replace it with a positive affirmation.

Step Eight: Evaluation 

At the end of treatment, patients and therapists evaluate how they feel now compared to how they felt before starting the therapy process.

If the patient made sufficient progress, then the patient and therapist may agree that they no longer need EMDR therapy. They may decide to continue seeing a therapist for other forms of treatment, or they may decide to work on their own with new coping skills.


The “R” in EMDR stands for reprocessing, and it’s one of the steps in therapy that helps maintain progress after the therapy has ended. EMDR therapy works by forcing our minds to relive and reprocess certain events that were previously not processed healthily.  

In the preprocessing phase, you and your therapists focus on reprocessing a memory so that you experience a healthier, more positive reaction to something that was formerly traumatizing. 

Is EMDR Effective?

EMDR therapies are highly effective for treating symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). It is so proven effective that the Department of Veteran Affairs recommends it to veterans suffering from PTSD. 

Since the 1990’s therapists have used EMDR to alleviate the effects of certain disorders. One study found that treatment helped with hallucinations, delusions, anxiety, and depression in 77% of its participants. 

When compared to exposure therapy, EMDR therapy is more effective. Both methods helped to alleviate symptoms in patients, but EMDR had a lower drop out rate and a higher success rate than exposure therapy. 

Patients who undergo EMDR therapy also experience longer positive effects from the therapy than with typical exposure therapy. 

There’s a lot of research regarding the effectiveness of EMDR in treating symptoms of PTSD. However, there’s still research being done on how effective EMDR is in treating depression and bipolar disorder. 

Studies are promising though. One sample study with a small group showed that EMDR helped with symptoms surrounding depression. As more therapists see their patients improve due to EMDR therapy, the more they recommend it to patients with symptoms of trauma. 

Where to Get EMDR Therapy

As a relatively new form of therapy, you may question where you can get treatment. Actually, you don’t have to look far. Many therapy offices, including ours, offer EMDR for PTSD and other emotional traumas. 

Who Can Practice EMDR?

An EMDR certification isn’t available to just anyone. To practice EMDR, therapists must have an advanced degree in the mental health field and have the appropriate licenses. Then, they must have at least two years of experience working in that field before they can get certified for EMDR. 

Once a therapist receives their certification to practice EMDR, they must complete twelve hours of continued education every two years. 

You should only work with a therapist who has the appropriate credentials and experience. You can find certified and experienced EMDR therapists at our offices, so you can be confident you’re getting the best care possible. 

Professional Associations and Certifications

An excellent way to boost your career and improve networking is by joining professional associations. Similarly, it can make sense to get counselling certifications to stand out from the crowd and hone your skills in different ways.


One particular association of note is the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Being able to join their ranks means that you can classify yourself as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. This designation guarantees to your clients that you’ve met the educational and training requirements suggested by the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors.

This eligibility requires that you first have a master’s degree from an accredited institution and that you have completed the counselling course requirements in each of the six areas:

  • Normal development and/or abnormal Psychology
  • Ethics
    Basic research design
  • Counselling and personality theories
  • Family therapy theory and practice
  • Group therapy theory and practice

You also need to have had 100 hours of clinical supervision as verified through a legitimate reference. As long as you meet all these requirements and send in an application, you can be a member of the association, providing you with connections and qualifications that will benefit your career.

Another association that you might consider joining is the Canadian Professional Counsellors Association. This national non-profit will similarly provide a registered status as well as access to events and training. Membership with them requires a minimum of 450 training hours, 90 of which are practicum hours with an accredited education provider, and provision of various supporting documents

Should You Seek EMDR Counselling?

EMDR is most commonly used to treat PTSD. But, if you experience any of these other symptoms, EMDR may be a good treatment option for you. 

  • A history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse 
  • Trauma-related or distressing memories 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Phobias 
  • Complicated grief 
  • Personality disorder
  • Disassociation 
  • and more..

It doesn’t matter what you’re struggling with. There’s a therapy solution for you. Speak with your therapist about a personalized treatment plan. 

Schedule a Free Consultation

Our licensed therapists are here to help. It’s our philosophy that the purpose of therapy is to help people take back control of their minds and their life. 

The sooner you seek out help, the sooner you’ll be back to yourself. If you’re still on the fence about whether or not EMDR therapy is for you, schedule a free consultation with one of our experienced therapists.

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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