Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Please speak with a medical professional before seeking treatment.

What can EMDR help with?

Treating trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

I noticed that when disturbing thoughts came into my mind, my eyes spontaneously started moving very rapidly back and forth. The thoughts disappeared, and when I brought them back to mind, their negative charge was greatly reduced.

Francine Shapiro, originator of EMDR therapy

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a form of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy [link to CBT] specifically developed for reducing the power of traumatic memories. A trained therapist will guide you to think about a trauma while moving your eyes back and forth, left to right. Over time, this will help your brain reprocess the memories so that they no longer cause as much pain.

What is EMDR treatment like?

As in typical cognitive behavioral therapy, with EMDR treatment, you first establish a supportive relationship with your therapist through conversation. You may also learn some new skills to cope with uncomfortable feelings that EMDR may bring up. The next phases of EMDR will most likely take multiple sessions. You’ll select a traumatic memory to reprocess, a memory that causes you great discomfort and triggers PTSD symptoms. While you imagine a traumatic scene from the event, your therapist will guide you to focus on the thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations that come up. At the same time, you will be asked to move your eyes back and forth, left to right rapidly, like in REM sleep. Your therapist might use their hand, a light bar that pulses back and forth, or audible taps to your left and right. This movement helps emotions related to the trauma to arise, and the therapist may have you stop the eye movements to talk about your perception of these emotions, to help you process them. Over time and possibly several repeated sessions, your emotions connected to these memories should lower in intensity, until they no longer cause tremendous pain. At that point, your therapist will help you to replace the associated negative thoughts and emotions with healthier thoughts and positive associations. For example, someone who was sexually assaulted may shift from feeling shame and helplessness to feeling empowered and strong.

Here’s a detailed description of the eight phases of EMDR treatment.

What do people who have tried EMDR say about it?

[I feel] that I have taken some control of my life back. Freedoms I didn’t realize I’d lost have been returned to me through EMDR in ways that psychotherapy couldn’t quite manage … I can say that I have let something shapeless, but every day terrifying, go.

— Steph


Long story short, my experience receiving EMDR completely changed my life … past experiences don't bother me at all anymore … In fact, I know how much wiser and stronger I've grown from these past struggles. It was intensely cathartic, emotionally draining, challenging, yet relieving and empowering.

— Jason N. Linder


I worked with my EMDR therapist to resolve those traumas and the issues that had arised. In that process I really became liberated. During each and every session I experienced revelations. Everything just made sense.

— Vivian Kulaga

Why does EMDR work?

There is disagreement in the medical field about how EMDR works. The World Health Organization tells us, “[EMDR] is based on the idea that negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the result of unprocessed memories (“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” 2021).” EMDR may allow for the patient to access and reprocess those memories resulting in a decreased negative reaction to the trauma. The mechanism by which EMDR achieves this effect is still being investigated. One theory is that actively engaging in 2 tasks at the same time (i.e., visual imagery and eye movements) leads to competition for limited working memory resources. Over time and with repeated dual tasking practice, this competition for resources may result in the emotional aspects of the memory becoming less vivid and/or intense. This allows the patient to achieve distance from the traumatic memory, so they can re-evaluate the trauma without being overwhelmed by their emotional reaction to it. However, this research is still in the early stages and it remains unclear to what extent the addition of the eye movements contribute to the proven effectiveness as compared to the cognitive behavioral piece alone.

How strong is the evidence?

The American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs/Dept. of Defense, The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, and the World Health Organization among many other national and international organizations recognize EMDR therapy as an effective treatment for PTSD.

What makes high quality EMDR treatment?

You should look for a well-trained and experienced EMDR clinician with training and experience in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s helpful if they have experience treating your specific type of trauma, for example trauma from sexual assault, war fighting, or a natural disaster. It’s important that you’re able to feel a good connection to the therapist, that you feel safe and supported.

Personal Stories

Where can I find more information?

EMDR Institute

EMDR International Association

Where can I go to get this treatment? (limited list)


Center for Discovery. (2019, October 9). Understanding What Actually Happens in EMDR Therapy.

Chen, L., Zhang, G., Hu, M., & Liang, X. (2015). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Versus Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 203(6), 443–451.

van den Hout, M. A., Engelhard, I. M., Beetsma, D., Slofstra, C., Hornsveld, H., Houtveen, J., & Leer, A. (2011). EMDR and mindfulness. Eye movements and attentional breathing tax working memory and reduce vividness and emotionality of aversive ideation. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 42(4), 423–431. .

EMDR International Association. (2020, July 15). About EMDR Therapy.

EMDR therapy for PTSD after motor vehicle accidents: meta-analytic evidence for specific treatment (2015). PubMed Central (PMC).

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. (2021, January 31). In Wikipedia

Solomon, R. M., & Shapiro, F. (2008). What is EMDR? – EMDR Institute – EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITIZATION AND REPROCESSING THERAPY. (2020). EMDR Institute, Inc.

World Health Organization. Guidelines for the management of conditions specifically related to stress. Geneva: WHO, 2013.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. Please speak with a medical professional before seeking treatment.


Reviewed by Amy Shapiro-Rosenbaum, PhD, Lyndsay Tkach, MA, CBIS, and Michelle Neary, March 2021.

The BrainLine Treatment Hub was created in consultation with TBI and PTSD experts.