What Is EMDR Therapy, Exactly, and Can It Really Help You Process Trauma?

Here’s what we know about the increasingly popular treatment.
Closeup of woman with light in front of eye
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If you’re tapped into the mental health or pop culture world, there’s a good chance you’ve at least heard of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). The therapy technique has been around since the late 1980s but in the past few years has become increasingly popular, thanks in part to some major celebrity shoutouts.

Prince Harry, for one, filmed an EMDR session for his 2021 documentary series with Oprah; Sandra Bullock publicly shared how the method helped her heal after a stalker broke into her home; Ashley Judd recently told The New York Times that she turned to EMDR to process the trauma of her mother’s death by suicide; and Kesha, SELF’s June 2023 cover star, named it as one of her go-to self-care practices for managing difficult emotions and recovering from an eating disorder.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR was originally developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and like many scientific discoveries, it came about almost by accident: “Dr. Francine Shapiro, the psychologist who originated it, was walking through a park, thinking about some upsetting memory, when she noticed that when she moved her eyes back and forth, she felt calmer,” Rachelle Kammer, PhD, LCSW, an EMDR-certified therapist and clinical professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, tells SELF.

Dr. Shapiro started testing out her theory in studies, having participants dart their eyes from side to side (what’s called bilateral stimulation) as they thought about a traumatic memory of their own. Many of them, too, found that it helped them work through distressing feelings. Dr. Shapiro theorized that for some people, after facing trauma and other highly stressful circumstances (such as a parents’ bitter divorce), the associated memories, emotions, and physical sensations can end up getting “stuck” in the information processing part of the brain. Bilateral stimulation seemed to work like a neurobiological Drano, unclogging that psychological build-up and allowing people to see the event more objectively.

“Some people go through a traumatic or otherwise stressful experience and they’re okay, but for others, the original sounds, feelings, images, and thoughts can stay locked in their brain and body,” says Dr. Kammer. In that case, they’ll either keep reliving it—which is what happens with PTSD—or the associated emotions and memories may end up manifesting as depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, she adds.

Is EMDR effective? And who is it for?

Studies show that, yes, it can work for a lot of people. Major psychological and health organizations endorse the use of EMDR as a treatment for trauma, specifically: The World Health Organization, the Veterans Administration, and the American Psychological Association have each recommended it for people with PTSD and issued guidelines for administering it.

Ongoing research and anecdotal evidence suggest it may also be a helpful tool for addressing other mental health concerns, including substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and chronic pain.

But EMDR is not a panacea: Some social scientists point to the fact that there’s still no research supporting its long-term effectiveness. And while studies have yet to show any harm from the treatment, either, the EMDR Institute, founded by Dr. Shapiro, does point out that “as with any form of psychotherapy, there may be a temporary increase in distress” as well as an unexpectedly “high level of emotion or physical sensation” as you recall memories in a session. Experts like Dr. Kammer also note that EMDR needn’t be an either-or choice and is often used in conjunction with traditional talk therapies.

How does EMDR work, exactly?

According to the EMDR Institute, this type of therapy follows an eight-phase protocol. The entire process—from start to finish—typically takes just four to 12 sessions to complete, though Dr. Kammer notes that it can go on longer for people with more complex issues (like multiple traumas, for example). Each session usually lasts from 60 to 90 minutes.

If you decide to give EMDR a go, here’s what you can expect:

In the first phase, the therapist takes your full history (they might ask you about your support system and whether you’ve done therapy before, for example). In phase two, they’ll explain how the EMDR process works and help you develop ways to calm your body and mind when faced with emotional distress (what EMDR experts call “resourcing”). Some examples: identifying go-to images that evoke peaceful, positive emotions (like a favorite hiking trail or sandy beach) as well as proven stress-reduction tools like deep breathing exercises, says Dr. Kammer.

In phase three, the “assessment” stage, you and your therapist will decide on a memory you want to target. That could be a traumatic event such as a sexual assault, childhood abuse, or a car crash, or it might be a highly stressful experience, like a horrible breakup or even a fear of flying. You won’t need to rehash all the details though: “We’re just asking for the headlines. I don’t need the client to tell me everything about whatever it is they want to address,” Dr. Kammer says. Instead, she explains, the goal is to get you focusing on the memory just enough to bring up some of the thoughts and emotions associated with it.

Phases four through six are when the bilateral stimulation comes in. The technique can be conducted in several ways: practicing EMDR’s hallmark back-and-forth eye movement (the therapist may ask you to follow their fingers or a dot of light); listening to tones that you hear in one ear at a time; crossing your arms in front of you and alternately tapping your shoulders with your hands; or placing small buzzers in each hand that vibrate lightly from one side to the next. Again, bilateral stimulation is meant to help people process upsetting memories and decrease the distress surrounding them.

During phase five, the therapist will also help you to replace negative thoughts with positive ones, and in phase six, they’ll guide you to mentally “scan” your body, in order to see if your traumatic or stressful memories are manifesting as physical tension, such as a clenched jaw or a knotted stomach.

Phase seven, “closure,” ends every EMDR session. At this point, the therapist will assist you in returning to the present moment so you’re no longer focused on a troubling past memory. If you’re still in distress, they’ll help you regain a sense of calm and equilibrium using some of the relaxation tools from phase two.

Finally, phase eight, or “reevaluation,” happens at the start of the next session, when you and your therapist will evaluate how well the treatment is working, based on your level of emotional discomfort. Ultimately, the goal with EMDR is that the memory will still be there, but it’ll no longer feel like it’s wreaking havoc on your life, according to Dr. Kammer.

How do you find a legit EMDR therapist?

As with any therapist, you want to look for someone who is licensed to practice therapy —they can have an MD, a PhD, or a master’s degree, but they need to list somewhere in their credentials that they’re licensed in your state (so for instance, someone with a master’s in social work should have LCSW, LICSW, or ACSW after their name).

They should also be trained or certified via the EMDR International Association (or a program associated with it). The organization requires that licensed therapists complete 50 hours of coursework to be considered EMDR trained. To become EMDR certified, they need to have at least two years of therapy practice under their belt, and they also must have conducted a minimum of 50 EMDR sessions with at least 25 clients during their training. You can look for “EMDR trained” or “EMDR certified” in a therapist's online bio or search the directory on the EMDR International Association site.

The bottom line: There’s not enough research to show EMDR’s long-term effectiveness and there’s no guarantee it’ll work for you, but plenty of people (licensed therapists, celebs, and everyday folks alike) swear by it. If you’re dealing with any kind of traumatic or deeply stressful memories that disrupt your ability to function day-to-day or to simply enjoy your life, it may be a worthwhile option. As Dr. Kammer explains to her clients, “EMDR can help people process these experiences and eventually get back to their natural state, where they're no longer emotionally overwhelmed.”