Disclosing EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy

A structured therapy that encourages a patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements), which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories.

Introduction to EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was initially developed in 1987 for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is guided by the Adaptive Information Processing model.

EMDR is an individual therapy typically delivered one to two times per week for a total of 6-12 sessions, although some people benefit from fewer sessions. Sessions can be conducted on consecutive days.

The Adaptive Information Processing model considers symptoms of PTSD and other disorders (unless physically or chemically based) to result from past disturbing experiences that continue to cause distress because the memory was not adequately processed.

These unprocessed memories are understood to contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical sensations that occurred at the time of the event.

When the memories are triggered these stored disturbing elements are experienced and cause the symptoms of PTSD and/or other disorders.

Unlike other treatments that focus on directly altering the emotions, thoughts, and responses resulting from traumatic experiences, EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory and is intended to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms.

During EMDR therapy, clinical observations suggest that an accelerated learning process is stimulated by EMDR’s standardized procedures, which incorporate the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps).

While clients briefly focus on the trauma memory and simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation (BLS), the vividness and emotion of the memory are reduced.

The treatment is conditionally recommended for the treatment of PTSD.

Using EMDR to Treat PTSD

EMDR therapy uses a structured eight-phase approach that includes:

Phase 1: History-taking

Phase 2: Preparing the client

Phase 3: Assessing the target memory

Phases 4-7: Processing the memory to an adaptive resolution

Phase 8: Evaluating treatment results

Processing of a specific memory is generally completed within one to three sessions.

EMDR therapy differs from other trauma-focused treatments in that it does not include extended exposure to the distressing memory, detailed descriptions of the trauma, challenging dysfunctional beliefs, or homework assignments.

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The Phases of EMDR

History-Taking and Treatment Planning

In addition to getting a full history and conducting the appropriate assessments, the therapist and client work together to identify targets for treatment. Targets include past memories, current triggers, and future goals.


The therapist offers an explanation for the treatment, and introduces the client to the procedures, practicing the eye movement and/or other BLS components.

The therapist ensures that the client has adequate resources for affect management, leading the client through the Safe/Calm Place exercise.


The third phase of EMDR, assessment, activates the memory that is being targeted in the session, by identifying and assessing each of the memory components: image, cognition, affect, and body sensation.

Two measures are used during EMDR therapy sessions to evaluate changes in emotion and cognition: the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale and the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale.

Both measures are used again during the treatment process, in accordance with the standardized procedures:

Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale

The clinician asks, “When you think of the incident, how true do those words (repeat the positive cognition) feel to you now on a scale of 1-7, where 1 feels completely false and 7 feels totally true?”

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Completely false       Completely true

Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale

After the client has named the emotion he or she is feeling, the clinician asks, “On a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no disturbance or neutral and 10 is the highest disturbance you can imagine, how disturbing does it feel now?”

No disturbance          Worst Possible


During this phase, the client focuses on the memory, while engaging in eye movements or other BLS. Then the client reports whatever new thoughts have emerged.

The therapist determines the focus of each set of BLS using standardized procedures. Usually, the associated material becomes the focus of the next set of brief BLS.

This process continues until the client reports that the memory is no longer distressing.


The fifth phase of EMDR is installation, which strengthens the preferred positive cognition.

Body Scan

The sixth phase of EMDR is the body scan, in which clients are asked to observe their physical response while thinking of the incident and the positive cognition and identify any residual somatic distress.

If the client reports any disturbance, standardized procedures involving the BLS are used to process it.


Closure is used to end the session. If the targeted memory was not fully processed in the session, specific instructions and techniques are used to provide containment and ensure safety until the next session.


The next session starts with phase eight, re-evaluation, during which the therapist evaluates the client’s current psychological state, whether treatment effects have maintained, what memories may have emerged since the last session, and works with the client to identify targets for the current session.

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