EMDR Explained

by Pam Minichiello, LMHCsunset-1207326_960_720


People diagnosed with PTSD experience a broad range of difficulties, such as anxiety, depression, trust and relationship difficulties, and terrifying flashback symptoms. Some people struggling with trauma-related symptoms can feel overwhelmed when triggered — feeling as though the danger of the past has suddenly burst into the present moment.  A variety of treatments has been developed to treat trauma.  Psychotherapists frequently use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR as a treatment for trauma.  Francine Shapiro developed EMDR over 25 years ago as an integrative therapy, incorporating aspects of cognitive, narrative, mind-body, and relational therapies.  

The unique feature of EMDR is the bilateral stimulation used during sessions.  Typically, the psychotherapist  moves two fingers back and forth in front of the client while the client tracks the finger movements. Alternatively, the therapist can use other mechanisms to accomplish bilateral stimulation, such as moving lights, tones, or small buzzers held in each hand.

Describing the Process

The EMDR protocol consists of two general phases, resourcing and memory reprocessing. The first phase is preparation for the second.  In the first phase, bilateral stimulation is utilized to develop and strengthen a person’s skills and resources so that s/he can manage strong emotions that may arise during the second phase of EMDR.  During the memory reprocessing phase, the therapist asks the client to bring up an image of a stressful or traumatic memory. The client tracks the bilateral finger movements, tones, or lights while simultaneously recalling the memory and experiencing the thoughts, emotions, and sensations associated with the original event. Through the reprocessing sessions and the adaptive nature of the client’s mind and body, the original memory becomes re-integrated into a more coherent and corrective narrative.  For example, prior to treatment a client may have held the belief that s/he was responsible for past abuse, and at the end of reprocessing, the client’s belief may shift instead to an understanding that the perpetrator was responsible.

How Does it Work?

Two aspects of EMDR are thought to be key to the treatments’ effectiveness – bilateral stimulation and what is termed, dual awareness.  Bilateral stimulation is believed to work similarly to the eye movements that occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when the brain is thought to process memories and learning into long-term memory networks.  Bilateral stimulation likely facilitates the reprocessing / re-storage of the traumatic memory, such that the memory becomes less intense and distressing to the individual.  Dual awareness simply means that while the individual is reprocessing a traumatic memory, s/he also is able to stay in the present moment experience, including being able to utilize support from the therapist.  Numerous peer-reviewed clinical studies have demonstrated EMDR to be effective in the treatment of trauma symptoms and PTSD.   Over the years,  the approach has expanded to the treatment of anxiety, phobias, addictions, and eating disorders.   

Other Treatments

The Preparation phase of EMDR ,  whether used by itself or in conjunction with memory reprocessing, can be a powerful intervention and treatment.  Even though many people may not not identify with having experienced trauma in their lives, most still suffer from the cumulative nature of  woundings from our past,  and for many, these woundings can give rise over time to the formation of negative belief systems.  These negative beliefs (e.g., I am inadequate, unworthy, etc.) can cause harmful coping patterns, such as, chronic anxiety, eating disorders, and addictions, and foster a fear driven life that prevents an individual from being able to reach his/her full potential.  Resourcing work can be a powerful tool to help build integrated qualities such as confidence, self-acceptance, and calming skills that can allow an individual to break out of unhealthy coping patterns.   

To find out more about EMDR , check the references below or contact the CNC 360 intake line.


  • Shapiro, Francine. 2001. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures; second edition. New York, NY:  The Guilford Press.
  • Shapiro, Francine. 2012. Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
  • Van der Kolk, Bessel A. 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY:  Viking Press.