Traumatic memories are often not stored correctly. Because of this, they can cause flashbacks, nightmares, and avoidance behavior. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps you healthily reprocess your trauma.

A man receiving visual bilateral stimulation during an EMDR session

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after experiencing a traumatic event. The memories of the event become distorted and cause distress long after the event. EMDR is designed to help you reprocess those memories.

Memories that cause PTSD were not processed correctly. Instead of filing them into long-term memory storage, they hang around like clutter on a coffee table. EMDR brings you to a place that lets you process your trauma in a safe space.

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that uses bilateral stimulation to help patients correctly process traumatic memories

Talking about trauma is not easy. When recalling distressing memories, you may feel intense emotions that make you unable to speak. The benefit of EMDR is that It allows you to work through traumatic experiences without having to talk.

Instead of discussing your traumatic memories, you’ll be using your brain’s natural healing processes to overcome your trauma. EMDR creates a safe mental place for you to correctly relive and reprocess memories that are causing you distress.

EMDR is a therapy that uses bilateral stimulation to help patients correctly process traumatic memories

What is EMDR Used For?

EMDR is used for people to work through trauma and stressful life experiences. It does have wider applications with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, but it’s formally used as a treatment for PTSD. 

How Does EMDR Treatment Work?

Every day your brain works to process and store memories. EMDR utilizes these natural processes so your brain can correctly store these once traumatic memories. Once the trauma is processed, symptoms of PTSD begin to dissipate.

EMDR is a patient-led therapy. You tell the therapist what you want to work toward and what memories you want to address, and the therapist will guide you through the process in a meaningful way.

A man resting after an EMDR session

How The Brain Stores Memories

According to current theories, memories are processed during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Your eyes move back and forth quickly while your brain moves short-term memories into long-term storage. This is the sleep stage when you have vivid dreams.


EMDR was created on the idea that you replicate the REM sleep while awake. When you engage your senses on either side of your body, it’s called bilateral stimulation. It causes your eyes to move like you're in REM sleep. Bilateral stimulation relaxes you and activates both sides of your brain so you can properly reprocess trauma.

Bilateral stimulation used during EMDR can include:

  • Alternating sounds using headphones
  • Moving eyes back and forth
  • Alternating taps on arms, legs, or chest
  • Holding an eye position
  • EMDR tappers that alternate pulses

The form of bilateral stimulation you use will depend on what you and your therapist find most helpful.

The Eight Phases of EMDR

The eight phases of EMDR: planning and history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, re-evaluation

EMDR follows a strict treatment protocol. It's broken up into eight phases, but each phase can take as long as needed.

When working with trauma this way it’s important to follow these steps. Deviation can be the cause of retraumatization and create more problems in the future.

1. Planning & History Taking

Before you begin treatment, you need to make a plan with your therapist. This means developing a working relationship with your therapist as well as talking about available resources.

Eventually, you’ll narrow in on the traumatic memories you want to work through. You don’t need to talk in-depth about the memory, but you may be asked to think about what you want to work on.

2. Preparation

During the second phase, you’ll learn what to expect during EMDR treatment. Your therapist will also set expectations and answer any questions you may have.

It’s important that you feel comfortable with the processes before you begin. You’ll be taught healthy coping skills to use throughout the therapy process. You can use these during sessions to reground and calm yourself if memories and emotions become overwhelming.

3. Assessment

Now that you’re acquainted with your therapist and you feel comfortable with the treatment plan, it’s time to narrow in on a target memory. You’ll find the traumatic memory you want to work on and identify associated:

  • Thoughts
  • Feelings
  • Images
  • Beliefs 
  • Sensations 

You’ll set baseline measurements so that the process can be tracked, using the subjective units of distress (SUD) scale. This gives you a baseline to work off of to measure your progress.

4. Desensitization

This is when bilateral stimulation starts. You’ll be asked to start the bilateral stimulation while focusing on the traumatic event or an image associated with the event.

Bilateral stimulation allows you to relive the memory in a non-traumatic way. During this phase, you’ll be given breaks and asked how you feel. Whatever you’re feeling, your therapist will tell you to focus on that feeling or thought as you continue into the memory. However, if you need time to reground, you can always ask to pause.

During this phase, you may discover new emotions and thoughts. Your therapist will encourage you to explore those as well. This will continue until distress levels are low, and you’re desensitized to the memory.

5. Installation

When the traumatic memory has been normalized and your distress levels have gone down, you’ll start the installation process.

During installation, you’ll be replacing the previous negative emotions with a positive belief. These positive beliefs could be:

  • I am strong
  • I am confident 
  • I can control my own happiness
  • I am forgiven
  • I am worthy

You’ll be reinforcing this belief until it feels completely true. This is measured using the SUD scale.

6. Body Scan

Body scanning is used to discover any lingering negative emotions that should be addressed. The goal is to work through the trauma until your distress is as low as possible.

You’ll be asked to hold the traumatic event and the positive reaction in your head and scan your body from head to toe. Your therapist can help you address any lingering distress at a later time.

7. Closure

This phase occurs at the end of every session regardless of what phase you were in before. Heightened emotions and levels of distress are normal while reprocessing. Closure re-grounds you and brings you to a calm state.

Closure is important for the healing process because it lets you pack up the distressing thoughts you’re working on. Without this step, those thoughts would run free until your next session. Failure to complete this step could lead to retraumatization and hinder your healing.

8. Re-evaluation

Now that you’ve gone through the process of installing the positive belief, it’s time to confirm the treatment worked. You’ll talk with your therapist about the reprocessed memory to ensure your distress is low. You’ll also talk about what your treatment will look like moving forward.

What Happens After EMDR Treatment

EMDR treatment is finished once you’ve confirmed that there is no lingering discomfort and the traumatic event is now associated with the positive belief. Treatment time will vary from person to person.

When treatment is finished you will feel a great sense of physical and emotional relief. For most, this happens during their final few sessions. At this point, you’ll be equipped with more coping skills and resources you can use to ensure you continue in the direction you want to go.

Your therapist may want to check up on you from time to time. You can also choose to continue treatment but target a different memory. Access to an EMDR therapist near you is a great resource for long-term mental health practices.

Practicing EMDR

Processing trauma by reliving it is hard. However, there are no dangers of EMDR therapy as long as your therapist has an EMDR certification. This is required for therapists who want to offer this therapy. It ensures that the practitioner knows the theory inside and out, and can safely and effectively use EMDR to treat trauma.

Find Healing at Sequoia Behavioral Health

Healing from a traumatic event whether recent or long ago requires a holistic approach. Managing symptoms can only go so far. At Sequoia Behavioral Health, we prefer to treat your symptoms as well as the source of your distress.

Sequoia Behavioral Health offers EMDR during both inpatient and outpatient care. Located in the modern Eastmark neighborhood of Mesa, AZ, our inpatient facility offers a communal and spacious living area that’s designed to feel like home. During your time with us, you’ll enjoy family-style meals, indoor and outdoor recreation, and community excursions while attending your treatment program.

With the addition of our outpatient facility in Mesa, we’re able to offer long-term mental health support. This is where the best results come from. Depending on your needs, availability, and insurance coverage, you’ll be enrolled in an intensive program that is tailored to your needs.

Contact us to see how we can help.