What is EMDR therapy?

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Hi, y’all– here’s my latest video & transcript.  In today’s video, I tackle the topic “What is EMDR therapy?” — take a look! If you’d like to stay in touch for future videos, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel here.


Hi, Ann Stoneson here. Today I want to talk to you about EMDR therapy, also known as eye movement desensitization reprocessing.

So, what is EMDR and how does it work?

EMDR was developed about 30 years ago by a psychologist, Francine Shapiro, totally by accident.  She noticed as she was walking through a park that she was thinking about something distressing, and when she moved her eyes back and forth as she was thinking about the memory, she noticed her distress was lessening and she thought,

“That’s interesting.  Maybe I should leave this PhD program I’m in and go to pursue a PhD in psychology and study this further.” 

And that’s exactly what she did.  So, it was totally by happenstance that EMDR was initially developed.

EMDR takes traumatic experiences and make them less distressing to think about, makes it so that if these thoughts or experiences from the past intrude in your present life, in the form ruminating and worrying, flashbacks, trying to avoid things that remind you about what happened, it reduces your distress so those things are no longer happening in the same way.

EMDR was first developed to help people with trauma.  It’s since been used in a lot of really neat ways, for peak performance, professional athletes and performers.  But it was first developed to work with past pain.

EMDR has 8 main steps, I’m not going to go into all of them in depth today, but in a nutshell, what it looks like is…

Step One:

First, your therapist will screen you to make sure you’re a good candidate for EMDR.  They’ll take a thorough history to understand you, where you come from, how you cope, what kinds of trauma you’ve experienced in life because let’s be real, most of us have not had just one bad thing happen to us. 

When you’re working with trauma, you want to understand how all of these pieces fit together in some sort of configuration.  Our brain loves to categorize, we organize things by different networks, when you work with one thing that’s traumatic there might be other pieces of trauma that you’ve experienced that when you wobble this part of the web, the whole thing moves.

The first part of EMDR is screening to make sure you’re a good candidate.

Step Two:

Understanding your history and how it fits together and doing a little bit of treatment planning. What are we going to do first, second and, third–that’s really important when you’re doing trauma work especially.

Step Three:

Then you’re picking which memory you want to work on because EMDR really focuses on what’s known as the “target”, that snapshot moment in time when things were really at their worst and their most awful.

We enter into that memory at that moment to work on it and to erode the distress so you can talk about what happened,

“What happened to me was really awful and I wish it had never happened.  That said, I now know is that it’s in the past, that I’m safe now,” –there may even be something that I take from that… for example, “…how strong I am or what I’m able to survive, and while I wish I’d never had that lesson, I now know that at a deep level.” 

So, people will talk about their traumas after doing EMDR something like that.

Step Four:

So, after you’ve picked the target memory then you do the really wacky stuff, the stuff of EMDR when I first heard about it I was like,

“Are you kidding me?  Eye movements?  You move your eyes back and forth?  What’s that about?”  That’s step four, which is the reprocessing part.  That involves bilateral stimulation of the brain.  Bilateral stimulation of the brain, what’s that mean?

It’s a way of integrating old information in a new way so that it holds less distress. When we experience trauma, trauma is encoded in our neural networks, in our brain, in our nervous systems and our bodies in a different way than just typical memory. 

It’s why, sometimes with trauma you’ll have dissociated it to the point where you don’t have any memory, it’s like amnesia, where it basically just gets blocked out and is not remembered for years or decades later. 

And then at other times you can have response to trauma where you remember the finest details, what were all the colors in the flowers on the wallpaper on that wall over there.  You’ll remember things visually, by sound, by smell, really acutely.  You can see these two extremes of blocking things out or really laying down details that are just—almost like you took a picture with your mind.

So when you’re doing bilateral stimulation, you’re integrating old information in a new way so that you’re bringing all the pieces together of the experience in a more harmonious fashion.

What you were feeling at the time.  What you were thinking of the time that you maybe still believe now, some negative beliefs that you’re carrying that no longer serve you.  That’s usually part and parcel of experiencing a trauma.  What was happening, any sensations in your body at the time or after the fact that you’ve been carrying with you. 

We don’t know quite why bilateral stimulation works, we just know that it does, and it’s an integral part of the process that makes EMDR very different from just your typical exposure therapy.  Most people you’ll be tracking their fingers back and forth with your eyes which stimulates both hemispheres of the brain.  I know it sounds wacky—I swear to you I wouldn’t have pursued this way of working if I didn’t have my own therapist who I very much trusted say, “Ann, let’s do this.”  And I did it and it really shifted some pieces of my own trauma in a profound way.

There are other ways of doing bilateral stimulation, you can have someone tap on your knees lightly, you can use Theratappers which are little buzzers that pulse back and forth.  That’s step four.

Step Five:

Step 5 is where you do installation, what would you like to believe about yourself now instead?  So instead of that negative belief you had that got laid down when you had that awful experience, what would you rather believe?

People will often pick things like, “I’m loveable, or I’m safe now, or I’m stronger than I know, I deserve good things.” Things like that.

Steps Six, Seven & Eight:

Then, the remaining steps are really wrapping up and integrating that work further.  Once you’ve installed that belief and it feels really true, then you’re doing a body scan, you’re also looking at do you need to be integrating this into past, present and future work. 

When we’re working with trauma, we start with what’s already happened in the past, then we look at any present-day circumstances that need tending to, and then we also look at things in the future that come up… that’s where peak performance can come in.  It’s integrating this new way of knowing ourselves as whole and worthy of love—all these positive beliefs that maybe got derailed when the awful thing initially happened.  We integrate that seamlessly through time, and that’s the past/present/future focus. 

EMDR is not a one solution, one session “cure.”  I use EMDR alongside talk therapy, it’s very different from talk therapy, and a very powerful way of working. 

That in a nutshell is some of the basics of the eight steps of EMDR and a little bit about the history with Francine Shapiro, who developed it.  It’s been around about 30 years now. 

If you’d like to learn more about EMDR, I suggest you go to emdria.org.  I’ll have that link in the notes below about today’s recording, if you’d like to go and read more about how EMDR works and look at some published research trials that compare EMDR to other forms of trauma treatment.

What you’ll find is that generally EMDR is as effective as other forms of trauma treatment if not more effective in some studies, and it’s a more gentle way of working.  

People tend to not drop out of EMDR the way they do sometimes with more traditional talk therapy or other forms of exposure therapy.  And that’s what I love most about it, it’s a gentle way of working with really hard stuff.  Why not go with the most gentle but effective way of working?

I hope this has been helpful to you, I’ll have some more videos coming out about some of the particulars of EMDR.  If you liked this and you’d like to follow my work and know when another video comes out, you’re welcome to subscribe.

For now, thank you so much for watching and I’ll catch you in the next video.  Bye!

Further reading:

EMDR International Association (EMDRIA)

Affordable EMDR in South Austin

Learn more about how EMDR works

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Ann Stoneson is a counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. She specializes in working with people pleasers, codependency, new moms, and trauma recovery. She has been practicing EMDR therapy for 9 years.

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