What Is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful psychological treatment that has been used effectively for over 20 years in a variety of international settings and cultures with many different types of psychological distress.

How Was EMDR Developed?

In 1987, psychologist Dr Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts, under certain conditions. Dr Shapiro studied this effect scientifically, and in 1989 reported success using EMDR to treat victims of trauma (Journal of Traumatic Stress).

These days, EMDR integrates elements of many effective psychotherapies to maximise treatment effects. These include:

  • Psychodynamic
    • Congnitive behavioural
    • Interpersonal
    • Experiential, and
    • Body Centred Therapies

EMDR is recognised as having the highest level of research evidence for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the Australian Psychological Society (EBPI Review 2010).

Over 300 studies have been published showing EMDR to be effective for treating

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Personality disorders
  • Complicated grief
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Pain disorders
  • Body dysmorphic disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Sexual or Physical abuse
  • Performance anxiety
  • Stress reduction
  • Disturbing memories
  • Phobias
  • Addictions

EMDR has been used effectively with adults, but also with children and adolescents.

EMDR is popular because treatment outcomes occur in a shorter period of time than some other treatments and the changes have been shown to be permanent.

EMDR is an information processing therapeutic technique that incorporates an eight phase approach:

Phase 1, 2, 3: Client History, Treatment Planning, Preparation and Assessment

Phase 4, 5: Desensitisation and Installation

Phase 6, 7: Body Scan and Closure

Phase 8: Re-evaluation

During EMDR the client attends to past and present experiences in brief sequential doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus. Then the client is instructed to let new material become the focus of the next set of dual attention. This sequence of dual attention and personal association is repeated many times in the session.

“…we are persuaded by the evidence and rank EMDR as an evidence-based Level A treatment for PTSD in adults.”  Effective Treatments for PTSD: Practice Guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies 2nd edition; Guildford Press 2009


Why EMDR Therapy?

The brain has mechanisms to heal itself naturally in the same way the body does. Much of this occurs during sleep, in particular during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) deep sleep. EMDR Therapy utilises this natural process.

The brain cannot process traumatic or stressful experiences as it normally would through sleep, talking it through and the passage of time.  The memory becomes “frozen in time” and continues to be disturbing when we think about it.  Such memories have a lasting effect and interfere with the way we see the world and relate to other people, often creating avoidance of places or people that trigger the memories.

EMDR Therapy has a positive effect on how the brain processes information. Following an EMDR Therapy session, people no longer relive the trauma or feel disturbed when they think about it. Flashbacks and nightmares cease. They still recall what happened, but it is not as upsetting.


How Long Does It Take?

One or more sessions are required for the therapist to understand the nature of the problem and to decide whether EMDR Therapy is an appropriate Treatment. The therapist will also discuss EMDR Therapy and give you an opportunity to ask questions.

The typical EMDR Therapy session lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. The type of problem, life circumstances, and the number of previous experiences will determine how many treatment sessions are necessary.

It is important to understand that although the EMDR Therapy itself can sometimes be completed in as little as one or two sessions, your therapist will first need to gather enough background information to be sure that EMDR Therapy is suitable for you, and to determine which exact EMDR protocols are best suited to your specific circumstances.  It may also be necessary to spend one or more sessions preparing you for the EMDR Therapy process by enhancing coping skills, relaxation skills, and education around the EMDR process.   It is therefore quite common for your therapist to spend several sessions with you prior to commencing the EMDR Therapy.


What Is The EMDR Session Like?

During EMDR, the therapist works with the client to identify a specific problem as a focus for the treatment session. The client then calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, what was seen, felt, heard, thought, etc. The therapist will then begin eye movements or other bilateral stimulation. These eye movements are used until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with a positive thought and belief about yourself.


What Are The Advantages Of EMDR Over Other Treatment Approaches?

  • Treatment is focussed on the symptoms and conducted in session
    • EMDR has comparable results to that of other trauma treatments such as exposure therapy, but over a shorter timeframe
    • Studies have shown that 77-90% of clients with PTSD were able to eliminate their symptoms after 3-7 sessions of EMDR (without homework)

Is there scientific evidence to support EMDR Therapy?

Yes. EMDR is one of the most researched psycho-therapeutic approaches for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Since 1989 over 24 controlled studies have found EMDR Therapy effectively decreases or eliminates the symptoms of PTSD. EMDR Therapy is also used for a variety of clinical problems which may have resulted from disturbing life events.

These websites include worldwide references for current research and peer reviewed articles:

EMDR Europe

EMDR Institute, Inc.

EMDR International Association


EMDR Therapy has been endorsed by the following organisations:

The World Health Organisation (2013)

The Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health (2013)

The Australian Psychological Society (2010)

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (2009)

The National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia (NHMRC, 2007)

UK National Guidelines for Clinical Excellence (NICE, 2005).

American Psychiatric Association (2004)

Dutch Guidelines on Mental Health Care (2003)

Israel National Council for Mental Health (2002)

Clinical Division of the American Psychological Association (1998)


Written by GRAHAM TAYLOR – President – EMDR Association of Australia

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