So, what Exactly is EMDR?

Maybe you’ve heard about EMDR from a friend or you were recommended to do it by your therapist. You hear it’s the “gold standard for the treatment of trauma” but don’t understand how, or maybe you’re even scared to do it. Being hesitant to actually talk about what you have spent a long time avoiding talking about makes a lot of sense. In fact, continually discussing a traumatic event doesn’t really help with overcoming it. This is where EMDR comes in. 

Your therapist will assist you in engaging in dual-attention stimuli (DAS) by having you follow their finger while they perform arm movements, using electronic buzzers to hold in your hands or shoes, or even a light bar. The reason behind it is because you will be mimicking saccades, the eye movement that occurred in REM sleep, to speed up the healing process. EMDR was developed after Dr. Francine Shapiro noticed she felt better after going on a walk during a stressful period in her life and she attributed the moving her eyes back and forth rapidly with this. 

I like to tell people it’s akin to using a retinol product – your skin will have more blemishes and be flaky because stuff is bring brought up to the surface of your skin from down below at a high rate of speed and your skin is adjusting to it. After this annoying period, ideally you will have the clearest skin of your life (at least that’s what happened to me when I decided to use Differin). I will explain the process below.

  1. History taking: your therapist is going to ask a lot of questions about your past – not just related to the trauma exactly. This is hopefully where rapport can be built and you can find some comfort in talking to your therapist. The most important part of the process is that you feel emotionally safe throughout it all with your therapist. If you have C-PTSD (complex trauma as a result of insecure attachment and feeling unsafe in childhood) your therapist might ask about your family history as well. This can be difficult to talk about, but it is all to help figure out how to best assist you in the healing process.
  2. Preparation: this is when you will perform the resourcing tasks with your therapist. They might ask about what you have done in the past and what has (actually) worked and what hasn’t. You will be asked to imagine a safe place or how you feel in a safe state in case it becomes overwhelming for you. Your therapist might even use DAS to help you install a resource like a smell or a sound. You’ll also be asked to visualize a container to put all the “bad stuff” into at the end of the session. I like to think of a deposit tube going into the mental health bank that you can take out when you’re resourced enough for it and your therapist is the teller to determine your funds in that mental health bank. They hopefully will teach you some other new coping skills that can work for you because EMDR can bring up a lot of heavy stuff and you can expect some dysregulation 24-28 hours after a session.
  3. Assessment: this is when your therapist will help you find specific events to target. If you have trouble thinking of events in the past, they might have you get in touch with your body and pay attention to the sensations that arise when you think of an event and where those bodily sensations associate with other events. Once a distressing event is identified, you will be asked to describe: an image of the worst part of it, the negative belief that goes along with that image, what positive belief you’d rather think about yourself instead, how true the positive belief feels, what emotions you’re feeling, and how distressing the event feels to you now.
  4. Desensitization: This is when the processing happens. Your therapist will then have you engage in the DAS mentioned above until you report the event is significantly less disturbing than at the beginning of the session. You might be surprised to see how something that seemed unrelated is actually popping up in your brain. Just go with it because we will probably tell you “go with that” each time DAS is performed.
  5. Installation: If you’re feeling better for two sets of DAS in a row and you feel like the positive cognition is pretty accurate, we will install that positive belief using DAS.
  6. Body Scan: You will be asked to scan your body from head to toe and note any sensations you are feeling. The point of this is to help you learn how to better understand the connection between emotions and your body and to search for any lingering negative beliefs or icky feeling emotions.
  7. Closure: If the positive belief about yourself doesn’t ring very true, your therapist will assist you in getting closure for an unfinished session. If it does ring true – your therapist will still go over potential after effects and provide any closing remarks.
  8. Reevaluation: If the event you discussed is still significantly distressing, you will have a chance to go over it again to hopefully bring the validity your positive belief higher and the distress level of the incident lower. If not, you’ll move on to another target memory together and do it all over again. It’s hard to estimate how many sessions will be needed because of this… you never know what may or may not come up when you do EMDR.

There can be setbacks to EMDR which include more pressing events that need to be addressed, external distractions like noise is an adjacent office, or issues with visualization. It can also bring up feelings of anger or even lead to one to revert to past coping mechanisms like dissociation. It is important to bring up anything out of the ordinary with your therapist during this process. EMDR is not the end all be all of treatment, but it can be incredibly beneficial for clients. As a therapist, it is very rewarding for me to see the difference in people in a considerably short amount of time before and after doing EMDR. As someone who has undergone EMDR, it changed my life for the better. I was able to figure out what I needed to work on from the past and how to better be there for myself in the future. I gained acceptance for myself I never would have otherwise and I am incredibly grateful for that opportunity. 

If you’re interested in starting on your healing journey with the use of EMDR, feel free to email or call to book a session with a Grow Therapist.


Jill Archer & Gary Scarborough’s EMDR Basic Training Manual

Posted by Kayte Keller

Kayte is a Clinician at Grow Psychological. She believes that people are experts of themselves and greatly honors the privilege of walking alongside others on their healing journeys.