Can You Get Over Trauma with EMDR?

February 16, 2024

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, impacts the lives of millions of Americans. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that about six in 100 people in the U.S. have some form of the condition, which is triggered by experiencing or witnessing a dangerous, shocking, scary, or traumatic event. People with PTSD may have intense and disturbing psychological and emotional thoughts and feelings related to their traumatic events even long after the event has occurred.  

Many people with PTSD know they should seek care, but they may not know what to expect or which kind of care to seek out. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications are valid options, but one surprisingly effective treatment involves using eye movements to help reprocess traumatic events.

Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a trauma-focused psychotherapy developed in the 1980s by psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro. It incorporates cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) elements with side-to-side eye movements and audio components. Over time, the repetitive use of EMDR can help rewire the triggers associated with the traumatic memory.

“EMDR is based on the idea that the traumatic event is dysfunctionally stored as negative memories in a person’s mind.” says neuroscientist and neurointerventional psychiatrist, Adrian Jacques Ambrose, MD, MPH, MBA. “As a result, EMDR works by focusing on the core memories of the trauma and integrating positive memory templates to help with a person’s symptoms.”

How EMDR Works

The idea behind EMDR is that our brains have a natural ability to process and heal from traumatic events. PTSD disrupts that process, but EMDR can help restore it. Clinicians use this treatment to reframe traumatic memories and experiences.

EMDR therapy usually involves eight phases, performed in a specific order:

  • History-taking and Treatment Planning:The therapist gathers information about the patient's history and symptoms and identifies specific memories or issues to address.
  • Preparation: The therapist and patient need to establish a trusting and safe environment to explore the traumatic experiences and ensure that the patient has coping skills and resources to manage a degree of emotional distress.
  • Assessment: The therapist and patient select a specific memory to address and identify any associated images, beliefs, emotions, and/or physical sensations.
  • Desensitization: The patient focuses on the identified target memory while simultaneously undergoing bilateral stimulation (such as following the therapist's hand movements with their eyes or using certain sounds) to process the memory, reduce its emotional charge, and promote positive integration.
  • Cognitive Installation: Positive beliefs and self-esteem are strengthened through bilateral stimulation while the patient focuses on a positive cognition or belief related to the target memory.
  • Body Scan: The therapist and patient assess and address any residual physical tension or discomfort associated with the processed memory.
  • Closure: The therapist helps the patient return to a state of equilibrium and provides strategies for self-soothing.
  • Reevaluation: At each subsequent EMDR session, the therapist repeatedly reassesses the treatment progression by eliciting previously processed targets and the individual’s current emotional, cognitive, and physiological responses.

“These are the main paradigms of “Desensitization” and “Reprocessing” in EMDR. The procedure helps the person process the traumatic event in a more helpful way and reduces the intense emotions and thoughts associated with the trauma,” says Dr. Ambrose.

The Benefits of EMDR

EMDR therapy has been demonstrated as a very effective treatment for PTSD. According to research led by Dr. Shapiro, 84% of patients with a single trauma were in remission for PTSD after just three sessions. That said, people with severe mental health or medical conditions or current substance abusers may not be candidates for EMDR.

If you are considering EMDR, please consult with a qualified mental health professional to determine if it is an appropriate treatment for you. Since EMDR therapy focuses on the memories of the traumatic events, individuals with PTSD may temporarily have worsened symptoms. As a result, it is very important for this therapy to be conducted with a qualified psychiatrist or therapist to help maintain the stability of the person’s psychological health throughout the treatment.

Remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a courageous step towards healing and recovery from a traumatic event.

To learn more about EMDR treatments, contact ColumbiaDoctors.


Adrian Jacques H. Ambrose, MD, MPH, is the senior medical director at ColumbiaDoctors Psychiatry and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.