Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is an effective treatment for trauma. It’s used today for other mental health disorders, including addiction.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a treatment method developed in the late 1980s for people with trauma and psychological distress. EMDR therapy aims to connect a person’s physiology and psychology to help them process trauma.

What Is EMDR?

EMDR is a therapeutic method first developed as a treatment for trauma that can also successfully improve the symptoms of some anxiety and mood disorders. The technique uses a combination of rapid eye movements and cognitive therapy to help people process trauma, reduce painful emotions associated with distressing memories, and counteract and replace negative self-statements with positive, empowering beliefs.

Origins and History of EMDR

Francine Shapiro, PhD., was the founder of EMDR therapy. A look through EMDR history reveals an important chance observation made by Dr. Shapiro that led her to develop this effective treatment for trauma. According to the EMDR Institute, Dr. Shapiro observed her eye movements when remembering painful memories and noticed that they reduced the effects of her negative emotions. She decided to explore the connection between eye movements and trauma further and used her findings to create a standard treatment process for EMDR therapy.

While EMDR was originally developed for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental health professionals have expanded the use of EMDR to other disorders. Today, EMDR therapy is also utilized for depression and anxiety.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

The EMDR process involves preparation, intervention and closure that take place over eight phases of treatment. During treatment, the client is briefly directed to focus on a specific traumatic memory. While the individual focuses on the traumatic memory, they also receive stimuli that trigger rapid eye movement.

The typical EMDR equipment used to induce rapid eye movement can vary. Stimuli may be visual, tactile or auditory. No matter the type, stimuli always alternate between the left and right sides of the body.

Some examples of stimuli typically used during EMDR therapy include:

  • Tactile stimuli, including rhythmic body movements, electric pulsators or tapping on alternating sides of the body
  • Auditory stimuli, such as sounds heard through headphones or small speakers set on either side of a person
  • Visual stimuli, like the movement of the therapist’s hand or a lighted wand back and forth at a set pace

The combination of memory recall and eye movement changes the way the memories are tied to emotions. While the person will still be able to recall traumatic or painful events after undergoing EMDR therapy, the emotional distress associated with them is significantly reduced.

Phases of EMDR

EMDR therapy has eight phases. A consistent, successful approach involves all eight of these phases over multiple sessions.

The eight phases of EMDR therapy are:

  1. History Gathering: The therapist makes a detailed evaluation of the client’s psychological history. Using this information, the therapist identifies and prioritizes targeted memories for reprocessing.
  2. Preparation: The most essential part of any therapy process is establishing trust and expectations as part of a healthy therapeutic relationship. During the preparation phase, the therapist also trains the individual in basic self-management and relaxation techniques that they can use throughout the EMDR treatment process.
  3. Assessment: The therapist and individual work together to identify a specific image associated with the target memory, along with any negative beliefs related to the image. The client is then directed to focus intently on the negative self-belief. Then, the therapist directs the client to select a positive statement they would rather internalize.
  4. Desensitization: During this phase, rhythmic stimuli are employed, and the traumatic event and image are evaluated together. The individual is encouraged to be open to whatever feelings, thoughts or memories arise when the stimuli are introduced.
  5. Installation: The therapist helps the individual connect positive thoughts to the traumatic experience and continue to confront and challenge negative and self-defeating beliefs about the situation.
  6. Body Scan: The individual scans their body for physical reactions to the traumatic event and the therapist and individual identify these physical sensations for further processing.
  7. Closure: This stage is for resolving any remaining physical reactions to the memory.  The self-management techniques taught during the preparation phase are used for this purpose.  The individual is brought back to a state of stability at the close of therapy.
  8. Re-evaluation: At the beginning of every new session, the therapist reviews the results of the previous session to determine how effective it was.

EMDR Therapy Side Effects

During EMDR therapy, a person briefly recalls the trauma associated with their symptoms. This recollection can cause some increased feelings of distress for a short time. A person may also have unexpected reactions to the memories they are recalling. However, research shows that, in most cases, EMDR therapy does not exacerbate the symptoms of PTSD. In fact, EMDR therapy has been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD and other mental health conditions both in the short and long-term.

What Does EMDR Treat?

Mental health experts are expanding the expectations of what EMDR can treat. While EMDR was originally used to address significant trauma related to PTSD, it has been used more recently as a therapy for other mental health disorders. Treatment centers for co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders are also starting to use EMDR more frequently.

EMDR in Mental Health Treatment

More therapists are using EMDR for mental health treatment today than ever before. Initially, therapists used EMDR therapy for PTSD. In recent years, mental health professionals have used EMDR to treat other disorders. According to the EMDR International Association, therapists report success using EMDR to address:

  • Panic attacks
  • Complicated grief
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Disturbing memories
  • Phobias
  • Pain disorders
  • Performance anxiety
  • Stress reduction
  • Addiction
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Body dysmorphic disorders
  • Personality disorders

EMDR in Addiction Treatment

Many individuals with substance use problems have also experienced trauma, which is often at the root of a person’s addiction. More treatment centers are using EMDR in addiction treatment as a way to reduce symptoms of underlying trauma or psychological distress.

Effectiveness of EMDR

One of the most cutting-edge mental health therapies used today is EMDR. The effectiveness of the treatment has been validated by research over many years, especially when compared to other types of therapy used to treat trauma. While some studies suggest that EMDR is also useful for treating other mental health conditions, such as depression, further research is needed to verify its effectiveness.

EMDR Treatment Providers

EMDR is a relatively new therapy. Despite this, the credibility of this therapy has risen quickly. The requirements for providing EMDR counseling services were established early, and each new therapist who provides EMDR counseling must meet these rigorous requirements.

EMDR treatment providers must go through extensive training before promoting their services. Providers must first be licensed in their state as a counselor and then acquire a certification that permits them to provide EMDR treatment. EMDR certifications are active for two years and require continuing education to be renewed.

To ensure that our clients have access to the latest therapeutic methods, many of The Recovery Village’s facilities provide EMDR therapy for addiction and co-occurring disorders. For more information about this therapy and the specific locations that offer it, reach out to a representative today.

a woman is standing with her arms crossed.
Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
a woman in a blue dress is posing for a picture.
Medically Reviewed By – Erika Krull, LMHP
Erika Krull has a master’s degree in mental health counseling and has been a freelance writer since 2006. Read more

Counseling Today. “EMDR for the co-occurring population.” May 29, 2014. Accessed March 15, 2019.

EMDR Institute. “History of EMDR.” Accessed March 15, 2019.

EMDR Institute. “EMDR Therapy.” Accessed March 15, 2019.

P.G. Van Den Berg, David. “Treating trauma in psychosis with EMDR: A pilot study.” ScienceDirect, March 2012. Accessed April 5, 2019.

Wilson, G., Farrell, Derek, Barron, I., Hutchins, J., Whybrow, D., Kiernan, M. D. “The use of Eye-Movement Desensitization […]tic narrative review.” Frontiers in Psychology, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.