What is EMDR & How Does it Work?

By Gina Henschen – MA, LPCC

EMDR therapy can help the brain heal from trauma.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a powerful therapeutic modality designed for treating PTSD and other trauma-related mental health conditions. Discovered by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, EMDR has quickly gained traction throughout the years thanks to its effectiveness. More than 13,000 therapists are now trained in the practice of administering EMDR to clients.

Maybe you’ve heard of EMDR but are wondering, “How does EMDR work?” Or more specifically, how does EMDR help the brain heal from trauma? Let’s dive into the science behind EMDR and how it works to help clients move forward from trauma.

How Does EMDR Work?

When we experience a traumatic event, our brain doesn’t properly process the information of what happened. It essentially gets “stuck” in the brain, rendering us unable to effectively move forward from the event. This stuckness can manifest in a variety of ways, from nightmares or flashbacks about the event, to other symptoms such as depression and anxiety.

In a nutshell, EMDR helps trauma get “unstuck” in the brain. As an information processing model, EMDR helps translate the traumatic event into more adaptive information that the brain can properly process. But how exactly does EMDR accomplish that? This is where bilateral stimulation comes into play.

Bilateral stimulation comes in a variety of forms, including alternating audio tones.

What is Bilateral Stimulation?

Bilateral stimulation, which is a key component of EMDR therapy, basically means any sort of stimulus that is presented to both sides (left and right) of the body. In EMDR, the most common form of bilateral stimulation is back-and-forth eye movements (hence the name “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing”). Other forms of bilateral stimulation may include back-and-forth tapping or back-and-forth audio tones.

Bilateral stimulation works to help the brain process information more effectively. One hypothesis for this has to do with the rapid eye movements we experience in deep sleep and when our most vivid dreaming takes place. Another hypothesis is that bilateral stimulation helps connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain to more effectively process information.

A final reason why bilateral stimulation is used in EMDR is because it helps clients stay in the present moment when recounting a past trauma. We don’t want to retraumatize clients in EMDR therapy, and bilateral stimulation serves as a reminder that the client is in the here-and-now and is safe. It serves as a bridge between the past and the present, allowing the brain to more effectively process what happened and recognize that it occurred in the past.

EMDR therapy is actually an eight-step process, designed to help the client feel prepared before tackling trauma.

The 8 Phases of EMDR Therapy

In EMDR, we don’t just jump right into working through trauma. The EMDR process is designed to help the client and therapist prepare for the deeper work, and to close out once the reprocessing is complete. Here are the eight phases of EMDR:

  1. History Taking
    In the first phase of EMDR, we gather a comprehensive overview of the client’s trauma history and establish “targets” for EMDR therapy. We also focus on building a relationship between the therapist and the client, and assessing the client’s outside resources.
  2. Preparation
    Next comes the preparation stage. In this stage, the therapist and client prepare for the deep work that will come during EMDR therapy. This is done by developing coping skills and internal resources to practice and utilize once EMDR begins. The therapist also explains the EMDR process to the client in order to help the client feel prepared.
  3. Assessment
    The assessment phase entails determining a target event for EMDR therapy and exploring the sensations and negative beliefs around the event. The therapist and client also identify how disturbing the event feels to the client in the present moment, as well as a new belief that the client wishes to “install” surrounding the event. Some examples include “I am enough,” “I did the best I could,” “I am strong,” or “I am loved.”
  4. Desensitization
    Phase four is where the actual EMDR begins. The therapist will have the client engage in bilateral stimulation while focusing on the traumatic event. The goal is to reduce the level of disturbance the client feels about the event down to a 0/10.
  5. Installation
    The installation phase consists of installing a new belief about the self, which is where the real healing of EMDR takes place. Again, the therapist administers bilateral stimulation to aid in the installation process. The goal is to increase the strength of the belief (known in EMDR as the “Validity of Cognition”) to a 7/7 (as in 7 means it is fully true).
  6. Body Scan
    Next, the therapist will ask the client to scan their body for any lingering signs of distress and will administer more bilateral stimulation as needed.
  7. Closure
    The closure phase entails bringing the client back into a state of calm to close out the session. This happens whether or not reprocessing has been completed, as we want the client to feel grounded when leaving the session.
  8. Reevaluation
    Last but not least, the reevaluation phase begins at the start of each new session. The therapist checks in with the client about their progress and determines any new targets for EMDR therapy.

It is my opinion that trauma touches all of our lives in some way, shape, or form. Whether you’ve experienced a “big T” or a “little T” trauma, trauma impacts us in ways that we might not even be conscious of. EMDR therapy can help you heal from the past and gain more agency and peace.

I am currently accepting new clients for EMDR therapy. If you are interested in scheduling with me, feel free to contact me at 720-443-2252 or gina@roadtogrowthcounseling.com for a free 15-minute phone or video consultation.


EMDR International Association. (2022, August 17). Retrieved August 30, 2022, from http://www.emdria.org/

Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic
principles, protocols, and procedures(3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.

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