What is EMDR and How Does it Work?

EMDR how does it work“I just can’t seem to get over my fear of snakes.” 

“I’m so afraid my spouse will leave me.”

“I jump at the smallest noise.” 

Each of these statements reveals a level of trauma. Intrusive fears and startle reflexes may be signs of unresolved energy, trapped in the body from a previous experience. But it doesn’t have to remain trapped — this trauma can be healed. EMDR is a leading technique to support our body’s ability to heal this trauma.

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a way to involve the body to help resolve and process responses to trauma. Let’s first break this down into its most basic elements.

  • “Eye Movement” refers to our eyeballs’ ability to go back and forth in a lateral movement when stimulated to do so, similar to our eye’s natural state during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
  • “Desensitization” means to diffuse the impact of an event; in other words, the person’s senses are no longer hypersensitive to certain stimuli.
  • “Reprocessing” is the ability to reintegrate — rather than re-experience — the traumatic event, thereby allowing the person to release the trauma into the past, dissolving its effects on the present.

All together, EMDR is a technique that uses bi-lateral sensations, such as eye movements, to bring a person to a state in which he/she can bring a traumatic memory to the surface in order to remove the hyper-arousal associated with the event. The awareness can allow trauma survivors to reframe the experience into a benign (harmless) event.

This technique is used to address experiences that have overwhelmed the brain and mental processes, and interfere with the person’s ability to cope.

EMDR helps reduce or eliminate the triggering of panic or anxiety associated with certain events. It enables therapists to help people replace a negative belief about a past situation with a positive belief. For example, it can help someone traumatized by incest to change “I’m dirty and bad” to “I’m a courageous survivor.”

Origin of EMDR

EMDR was created in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro. It has since evolved in its approach and application. EMDR has been successfully used for all ages, sexes, and nationalities to help restore the body’s natural ability to alleviate post-traumatic stress symptoms, including:

  • Panic attacks
  • Performance anxiety
  • Disturbing memories
  • Nightmares
  • Phobias

Imagine a combat veteran being able to eliminate a panicked response to fireworks on the Fourth of July. This is an example of the tremendous benefits people experience from the technique.

How it Works

This technique provides the greatest benefit when learned by working with a therapist trained in EMDR. Later, trauma survivors can use EMDR techniques on their own, after first gaining experience with a trained professional. This helps ensure that people apply the techniques correctly, and provides a resource to help cope with any residual trauma.

EMDR is based on the model known as Adaptive Information Processing (AIP). This model explains that trauma can become held in the body due to ineffective or incomplete processing of an experience. This can happen in childhood, while the brain, mind, and social support systems are not developed enough to help the person process what happened. Problems processing trauma can also happen when events cause shock or a loss of consciousness, which interrupts the activity of thinking through or physically resolving an intense experience.

The presence of unexpressed trauma can trigger hyper-responses to certain stimuli that are reminiscent of the event. EMDR seeks to reprogram the experience in an adaptive way so that it no longer triggers hyper-vigilance. EMDR can address triggers that relate to:

  • Past
  • Current
  • Possible future

Various Ways to Have an EMDR Session

What is an EMDR session like? Your senses experience a gentle stimulus on one side, then the other. EMDR may use visual input, or use other senses such as sound or touch. Therapists can work with four types of stimulus:

  • Visual – A clinician may use a screen with an image that goes back and forth or he/she may ask you to follow his/her hand.
  • Tactile – A clinician may ask you to hole devices that pulsate. This pulsing vibration has an alternating rhythm that stimulate bi-lateral eye movement in the person. This brings the person down into a state of consciousness ideal for reframing trauma.
  • Auditory – A clinician may ask the patient to wear headphones that deliver a tone in specific intervals.
  • Combination – Some clinicians choose to combine these methods, like using headphones and tactile pulsers simultaneously, or headphones and visual stimulation together.


EMDR is typically administered during an eight-stage treatment process, although it may be used as a stand-alone technique.

A brief overview of the eight stages are as follows:

Stage 1: History-collecting in which the clinician gathers information of distressing events

Stage 2: Ensuring adequate coping skills in which the clinician reviews stress-reduction techniques for the client to use during or between sessions

Stage 3: EMDR is administered, and the client is asked to allow whatever spontaneously comes to the surface to arise naturally

Stage 4: The client brings the visual image of the experience to mind

Stage 5: The client identifies a negative belief about him- or herself, and a positive belief to use to build internal strength throughout the process

Stage 6: The client tracks what is going on in his/her body during the process (feelings, sensations)

Stage 7: The client keeps a journal, recording any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that arise during or between sessions

Stage 8: Reviewing the progress and making adjustments for future sessions

The Healing Power of EMDR

Numerous studies have shown that EMDR can have a profound effect on healing a variety of traumatic events. In one study, as many as 77% of combat veterans eliminated their PTSD symptoms within only twelve EMDR administrations. From simple, single-trauma episodes to multiple severe trauma episodes, EMDR has earned its place among the most effective curative approaches of today.

We are here to help

We are here to help you, through our training in EMDR and to help you talk through and heal from trauma.

Could EMDR help you overcome trauma or anxiety? You can find out more about EMDR and wellness services at Oak River Wellness in Centennial CO.  Please call 720-445-4337 for personal answers to your questions.