Understanding Why EMDR Is a Very Effective Trauma Therapy

January 13, 2024


People come into therapy to address current problems that are often rooted in the past. For these clients, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) can be significantly helpful because it offers a context for examining present symptoms through the window of distressing experiences in the past.

Personally, I find it very rewarding to help my clients relieve present symptoms by accessing difficult past events, because it ultimately allows them to develop a deeper sense of self-compassion and understanding of why they have been and continued to struggle.

Trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation — like combat, unexpected loss, an accident, assault, or natural disaster — and the effects can be obvious or subtle. Because trauma impacts how the brain works, long-term symptoms can include: fatigue, sleep disturbances, depression, avoidance, flashbacks, strained relationships, unpredictable emotional responses, and physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches. More simply put: you might not feel like yourself anymore. When individuals get stuck in this trauma response, psychologists who specialize in trauma can help them move on with their lives. EMDR is an eight-phase therapy that combines several elements for maximum effectiveness.

Using EMDR means incorporating an approach that focuses on the past, present, and future, and relies in part on bilateral stimulation to help the client process and even transform distressing past experiences and memories in order to move forward into a better future.

In the context of EMDR, trauma is any past experience that causes a negative impact today. The event could have been a single occurrence or an ongoing situation, something big or small, which leaves an individual feeling distressed and stuck. In addition to the symptoms given above, these disturbing events can cause problems like hypervigilance, irritability, difficulty concentrating, feelings of detachment or numbness, and a sense of foreboding.


Trauma can completely upend the feelings and beliefs you have about yourself, your family and friends, and the world around you. In her article, Treating Trauma: Why EMDR Might Be Right for You, Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC describes a helpful way of explaining how trauma can affect the brain. She explains that if you think of your brain as a system of rivers and streams, trauma is like a beaver dam that blocks the normal flow. As the system backs up and overflows, your memories, emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations can be stymied and stuck. EMDR works to remove these trauma blocks, as it frees your brain to process more effectively and heal itself.

A trauma-informed therapist understands the often complicated present-day impact of these past experiences, with an emphasis on psychological and emotional safety for their clients. A trauma-informed therapist will recognize the signs and symptoms even in clients who may not think of themselves as trauma survivors. This approach is sensitive to how pervasive the impact of trauma can be: from physical symptoms to a person’s beliefs and outlook.

A trauma-informed therapist can offer integrated tools and therapies to promote healing, while preventing further harm, for deep and long-lasting change.

In her article, Trauma Recovery and Herman’s Three Stages of Treatment, Judith Herman, psychiatrist and author, outlined three stages of trauma recovery: safety and stability, remembrance and mourning, and reconnection and integration. Although these phrases may sound simple and straightforward, each can be complex and difficult. More to the point, individuals move through these processes at their own pace.

For safety and stability, it’s important to be open with your therapist about your personal and family history in order to resolve the trauma as you move through therapy. During the first phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist and client work together to identify targets for EMDR and develop a plan. These targets might include events from a troubled childhood or a single event experienced as an adult, with an aim toward gaining insight in order to relieve distress and change problematic behaviors.

During this stage, the EMDR therapist will also ensure the client is equipped to handle emotional distress that may arise during therapy and in the real world. This includes imagery exercises and stress reduction techniques to be used between sessions.

The remembrance and mourning stage of EMDR trauma recovery allows clients to visualize the traumatic event, identify and release the negative thoughts and feelings associated with it, and replace these with positive beliefs to carry forward — in line with Herman’s idea that “trauma resolves only when the survivor develops a new mental ‘schema’ for understanding what has happened.” For instance, feelings of anxiety and/or beliefs (e.g., “I am always at risk,” “Something bad will definitely happen”) that are tied to a traumatic experience in the past can be transformed into a sense of personal empowerment. Instead, individuals can rewrite their beliefs into empowering statements, such as “I am safe and secure.” As EMDR helps to transform distressing memories of trauma, it also allows you to develop a new interpretation of the trauma to help free you from pain, shame, and guilt that helps to reclaim your power.

The last phase of trauma recovery — reconnection and integration — is a time in EMDR for gauging progress and identifying any additional targets for therapy, as well as envisioning moving forward in life after making these strides. As trauma and its effects are resolved, clients can move forward into their new life with a focus on the present and the future, without continuing to feel stuck in the past.


Initially developed in 1987, EMDR tends to be more beneficial for people who are struggling with PTSD and other traumatic memories. However, this therapy is also appropriate for addressing anger, panic, feelings of powerlessness and low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, addiction, and disordered eating. EMDR is recognized as an effective therapy for trauma and other distress by the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association, and the US Department of Defense, with millions of people benefiting from this therapy.

Studies demonstrate that EMDR can decrease and even eliminate symptoms, with one study finding that EMDR was more effective than prolonged exposure therapy in treating symptoms. This therapy is free from side effects associated with prescription medications, though the process can feel intense. Furthermore, the benefits of EMDR can last well beyond the end of therapy for long-term relief and even full remission of symptoms.

EMDR can offer more immediate benefits that once took years to achieve. Similar to recovery from a physical wound, the mind can naturally heal from trauma once the “injury” block or imbalance is addressed.

The type and severity of trauma will determine the number of EMDR sessions required. Although EMDR may not produce instantaneous results, it is the quickest way I know to address the root cause of someone’s emotional pain. EMDR can also be incorporated into your regular therapy. I use EMDR because it successfully integrates the best aspects of different theoretical models into a coherent whole. EMDR allows my clients to gain deep and valuable insight as they process the past. They can consider maladaptive thoughts and emotions differently, as well as learn new ways of relating to themselves and others. In short, EMDR helps people who are dealing with trauma to release their suffering and step into a healthier and more hopeful future.

Our trauma experts
January 13, 2024