What is EMDR? How does it work? Is it safe? What’s a session like? These are the four questions I hear most often about EMDR. Let’s take a look at what EMDR is first.

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization Routine, developed in the last 1980’s, is a widely-used and effective method to resolve trauma. It’s based on bilateral stimulation – holding a negative or painful memory while simultaneously experiencing a second stimulus. The second or bilateral stimulus involves visual, auditory, or tactile stimulation – watching finger or hand movements move left and right, watching a light bar move left and right, listening to alternating tones, holding small vibrators in the hands, tapping alternate parts of the body (typically the thighs or knees).

EMDR is one of several therapy tools your therapist may recommend. It isn’t just for PTSD or trauma. It’s also a safe and effective form of treatment for a variety of other problems – anxiety and panic attacks, depression, stress, phobias, sleep problems, complicated grief, addictions, pain relief including phantom limb pain, and self-esteem.

Honestly, no one really knows how EMDR works, but extensive research in 19 controlled studies points to the fact that EMDR works well and can be a very fast and effective way to treat PTSD, trauma, and other problems I’ve mentioned above. And, while it can be stressful, EMDR is generally safe if done by a qualified therapist.

I use an analogy with my hands to describe how EMDR works. One hand represents negative or painful memories. The second hand represents the emotional and physical response I have to those memories. Before EMDR those memories and emotional/physical responses are tightly bound like two clasped hands. When (not if) an unpleasant memory comes up I immediately react to that memory, emotionally and physically. After EMDR, my hands are relaxed. Memories remain but without the emotional and physical response. EMDR relaxes or loosens the bond between memories and responses and helps reintegrate memories so they are in the past, where they belong, and not the present.

An EMDR session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. After my client and I work together to help him or her better regulate their emotions and we’re both comfortable with other aspects of safety, we can get into an actual session. My client and I will have already chosen one bilateral stimulation mode by this point.

I’ll ask my client 6 questions about an unpleasant memory of their choosing – a target memory, worst image of that target memory, emotion(s) related to that image, physical sensation(s), negative thought(s) about themselves related to the image, and level of distress they feel when holding the image. Their distress level must be between 3 and 8 on a scale of 1-10 for EMDR to be effective. We’ll then do several 1 to 3-minute sets of bilateral stimulation, examining any other thoughts that come up in each set. We’ll repeat the process until my client’s distress level with that memory drops to 0-1 and they have no physical sensations. In our next session we’ll briefly go back to that unpleasant memory. If their distress is still at 0-1 we’ll move on to another memory. If, not we’ll continue processing that memory.