What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is an extensively researched, effective psychotherapy method proven to help people recover from trauma and other distressing life experiences, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorders.

The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Dr. Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilizing this ​natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems. 

Our bodies, specifically our nervous system is naturally built to respond to stressful situations by way of fight, flight, or freeze instincts. Our brain also has an information processing system, that essentially digests, discards and stores what is  “adaptable” information in the memory system - more often than not this system gets blocked when a traumatic or adverse event occurs. When "stuck", these events can get locked in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings and body sensations. Whenever a reminder of the traumatic or adverse event comes up, those pictures, thoughts, feelings, and sensations can continue to be triggered. 

According to Dr. Shapiro, many emotional problems and disorders are manifestations of these unprocessed trauma memories that are stored in the brain. EMDR therapy works by helping the brain reprocess these traumatic memories, and as a result alleviate and often heal emotional and psychological disorders.

two chalk images of a brain to demonstrate the impact of EMDR on brain activity

How does EMDR work?

EMDR utilizes the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment and development of a treatment plan, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated simply by asking you to watch the therapist’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings. 

With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life. 

How does EMDR Work in virtual sessions?

Online EMDR therapy is conducted in pretty much the same way as face-to-face EMDR therapy, with some minor adjustments in relation to how the bilateral stimulation movements are carried out. As with face-to-face EMDR therapy, bilateral stimulation (i.e. using eye movements, bilateral tapping and auditory tones) can be used in an online EMDR therapy session. With the exception of bilateral tapping (which is self-administered), eye movements and auditory tones will be carried out using a simple therapist-controlled computer program that will be explained to you. Clients need a desktop or laptop computer in a private, quiet and comfortable space.

Who can benefit from EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy can address a wide range of challenges:

  • Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias
  • Chronic Illness and medical issues
  • Depression and bipolar disorders​
  • Grief and loss
  • Pain
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma and stress-related issues
  • Sexual assault
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Violence and abuse
person meditating while a setting sun turns the sky and water a beautiful tint of purple

How is EMDR Therapy different from other therapies?

EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or delving into your entire history.  EMDR therapy, rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, allows the brain to resume its natural healing process.

EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.

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Jennifer Pinto
Registered social worker, MSW, RSW