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The 8 Phases of EMDR Therapy: A Guide to Healing from Trauma

Imagine a life unburdened by the weight of traumatic memories. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) offers a ray of hope to individuals grappling with the aftermath of distressing experiences. Let's dive into the intricate process of EMDR and its eight transformative phases.

phases of emdr

What Is EMDR and How Does It Work

EMDR is a psychotherapeutic approach developed to help individuals cope with distressing memories, trauma, and other psychological difficulties. It stands out due to its unique method of incorporating bilateral stimulation, which activates both sides of the brain, simulating the rapid eye movement experienced during REM sleep.

EMDR is grounded in the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which suggests that trauma and negative experiences can interfere with the brain's natural ability to process information. This interference contributes to the persistence of distressing symptoms.

EMDR operates on the belief that traumatic experiences can become "stuck" in the brain, causing negative emotions and reactions to resurface, even long after the event has occurred. This can lead to symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety.

EMDR therapy helps to "unstick" the brain by stimulating the left and right hemispheres simultaneously. This bilateral stimulation is thought to help integrate the traumatic memory into the brain's memory network so that it can be processed and stored more healthily.

The Origins of EMDR

Francine Shapiro's discovery of EMDR was serendipitous. While taking a walk, she observed that her distressing thoughts seemed to lessen as her eyes moved rapidly. This observation led her to explore the connection between eye movement and emotional processing, culminating in the birth of EMDR.

The Mechanisms Behind EMDR

Memory Reconsolidation

EMDR is grounded in the concept of memory reconsolidation. When a distressing memory is recalled during bilateral stimulation, the brain's neural networks are activated. This activation opens a window of opportunity to modify the memory by introducing new information and associations. As a result, the memory is reconsolidated in a less distressing manner.

Adaptive Information Processing

EMDR aims to facilitate adaptive information processing, which involves integrating distressing memory with more positive and realistic beliefs. Through bilateral stimulation, the individual's cognitive and emotional responses to the memory are reshaped, allowing for a more balanced perspective.

How EMDR Works

EMDR's effectiveness is rooted in the brain's natural ability to process information. During a traumatic experience, memories may not be properly processed, leading to the persistence of distressing emotions. EMDR harnesses neuroplasticity to reprocess these memories, diminishing their emotional charge.

At its core, EMDR aims to facilitate the reprocessing of traumatic memories. During a session, a trained therapist guides the individual to recall distressing memories while simultaneously engaging in bilateral stimulation. This stimulation can involve back-and-forth eye movements, taps, or sounds.

EMDR involves a structured eight-phase process that helps individuals process distressing memories and associated emotions.

What is Bilateral Stimulation?

Bilateral stimulation (BLS) is a key component of EMDR therapy. BLS mimics the brain's natural processing mechanisms, allowing the distressing memory to be reevaluated and integrated from a more adaptive perspective.

Bilateral stimulation is a technique that uses alternating stimuli to activate both sides of the brain. This helps to create new neural pathways and to integrate traumatic memories into the client's overall memory network.

There are several different ways to provide BLS, including:
  • Eye movements: The therapist will move their fingers back and forth in front of the client's eyes. The client will be asked to follow the therapist's fingers with their eyes.
  • Tapping: The therapist will tap on the client's knees or shoulders in a rhythmic pattern. The client will be asked to tap along with the therapist.
  • Sound: The therapist will play a series of tones or clicks in each ear. The client will be asked to listen to the tones or clicks.
  • Pulsed tones: The therapist will use a device to create pulsed tones that are delivered to the client's ears. The tones will alternate between the left and right ear.
  • Light bar: The therapist will use a light bar that emits light from the left and right sides. The client will be asked to focus on the light bar as it moves back and forth.
  • Tactile stimulation: The therapist will use a vibrating device to stimulate the client's hands or feet in a rhythmic pattern.
The type of BLS that is used will depend on the client's preference and the therapist's expertise. The therapist will typically start with a gentle form of BLS and gradually increase the intensity as the client becomes more comfortable.

BLS is thought to work by stimulating the brain's natural healing process. When we experience a traumatic event, our brains get stuck in a state of hyperarousal. This can lead to symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. BLS helps to calm the brain and to allow the traumatic memory to be processed healthily.

BLS is generally safe and well-tolerated by most people. However, some people may experience side effects such as dizziness, headaches, or fatigue.

The Eight Phases of EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy involves a series of eight phases that help the client to process traumatic memories and associated negative emotions.

Phase 1: History taking and treatment planning

In the first phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist will gather information about the client's history, including any traumatic events that they have experienced. The therapist will also develop a treatment plan that is tailored to the individual client's needs.

The therapist will ask the client about their symptoms, their goals for therapy, and their preferences for treatment. The therapist will also assess the client's readiness for EMDR therapy.

Phase 2: Preparation

In the second phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist will help the client feel safe and comfortable with the EMDR process. The therapist will teach the client a variety of coping skills, such as deep breathing, relaxation techniques, and grounding exercises. These skills can help the client to manage any distress that may arise during EMDR therapy. 

The therapist will explain the EMDR process to the client and answer any questions that they may have. The therapist will also help the client to identify a specific target memory that they want to work on.

Phase 3: Assessment

In the third phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist and client identify the specific traumatic memory that they will work on in therapy. The therapist will also help the client to identify the negative belief and positive belief associated with the traumatic memory.

The negative belief is the belief that the client holds about themselves in relation to the traumatic memory. For example, a client who was sexually assaulted in childhood may have the negative belief that they are "dirty" or "unworthy." The positive belief is the belief that the client would like to have about themselves in relation to the traumatic memory. For example, the client in the previous example may want to have the positive belief that they are "strong" and "worthy of love."

In the assessment phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist will:
  • ask the client to describe the traumatic memory in detail, including what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted.
  • help the client to identify the negative belief and positive belief associated with the traumatic memory.
  • explain the EMDR process to the client and answer any questions they may have.
  • make sure that the client is comfortable with the EMDR process before they begin.
Phase 4: Desensitization

In the fourth phase of EMDR therapy, the therapist will use eye movements, tapping, or other forms of bilateral stimulation to help the client to process the target memory.

The client will be asked to focus on the target memory while the therapist provides bilateral stimulation. The BLS is typically done for 20-30 minutes per session. As the client processes the memory, they may experience a variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, fear, and guilt. The therapist will help the client to tolerate these emotions and to let go of the negative attachment to the memory.

The desensitization phase of EMDR therapy can be repeated multiple times until the client can hold the traumatic memory without feeling overwhelmed by the emotions and sensations associated with it. Once the client has reached this point, they will have successfully processed the traumatic memory and they will begin to experience a reduction in their symptoms.

Phase 5: Installation

Once the client has processed the target memory, the therapist will help them to install a positive belief about themselves that is incompatible with the negative belief that was associated with the memory. For example, if the client's negative belief is "I am weak", the positive belief could be "I am strong". The therapist will ask the client to repeat the positive belief while the therapist provides bilateral stimulation.

Phase 6: Body scan

The therapist will ask the client to scan their body for any areas of tension or discomfort. If the client identifies any areas of tension, the therapist will help them to release the tension through bilateral stimulation.

Phase 7: Closure

The therapist will end the session by reviewing what was covered and by providing the client with grounding techniques. The therapist may also give the client homework to complete between sessions.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

The therapist will evaluate the client's progress at regular intervals. If the client is not making progress, the therapist may need to adjust the treatment plan.

Download the 8 phases of emdr in pdf format along with a script for each phase here → 8 phases of emdr pdf with a script for each phase.

EMDR's Effectiveness

EMDR therapy is effective in treating a variety of mental health conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression. In some cases, EMDR therapy is more effective than other forms of therapy.

Unveiling the Science

Rewiring Neural Pathways

Research suggests that EMDR helps rewire the brain's neural pathways, allowing traumatic memories to be processed and integrated more adaptively. This leads to a reduction in the emotional charge associated with the memories.

Unlocking Adaptive Information

EMDR is believed to enable the brain to access and utilize adaptive information, thus promoting healthier emotional responses and behaviors.

EMDR's Applications

EMDR therapy can be used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including:
EMDR therapy is also being studied for its potential to treat other conditions, such as:
Treating Trauma and PTSD

EMDR has gained recognition for its effectiveness in treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies have shown that EMDR can lead to significant reductions in distressing symptoms and the reevaluation of negative beliefs.

Anxiety and Phobias

Beyond trauma, EMDR has been applied to alleviate anxiety disorders and phobias. By targeting the root causes of these conditions, individuals can experience relief from their debilitating symptoms.

Grief and Loss

Individuals struggling with grief and loss may find relief through EMDR's ability to alleviate emotional distress.

Is EMDR therapy safe?

EMDR therapy is generally considered to be a safe and effective treatment for a variety of mental health conditions. However, as with any therapy, there is always the potential for side effects. Some people who have undergone EMDR therapy have reported experiencing side effects such as dizziness, headaches, or fatigue. However, these side effects are usually mild and go away on their own.

Is EMDR right for me?

If you are struggling with a mental health condition that is negatively impacting your life, EMDR therapy may be a helpful option for you. EMDR therapy is a relatively new therapy, but it is effective in several clinical trials. If you are interested in learning more about EMDR therapy, you can talk to your therapist or do some research online. There are also several books and websites that can provide more information about EMDR therapy.


In the world of psychological therapies, EMDR shines as an innovative and effective approach to healing trauma and managing various emotional challenges. By harnessing the brain's natural ability to process memories, EMDR offers new hope to those who have been burdened by distressing experiences. The 8 Phases of EMDR Therapy provide a structured roadmap to process and transcend distressing memories, ultimately leading to a more empowered and resilient self.

If you're seeking relief from emotional pain and looking for a therapy that's both evidence-based and holistic, EMDR could be the solution you've been searching for.


Q: Is EMDR only for severe cases of trauma?

A: No, EMDR can be beneficial for individuals with various levels of trauma and distress.

Q: Is EMDR suitable for children?

A: EMDR can be effective for children who have experienced trauma, under the guidance of a trained therapist.

Q: How long does an EMDR session typically last?

A: An EMDR session usually lasts around 60 to 90 minutes, but the duration can vary based on individual needs.

Q: How many EMDR sessions are usually needed?

A: The number of sessions varies depending on individual circumstances, but some individuals experience positive changes in as few as 6 to 12 sessions. A comprehensive treatment plan is typically developed within the first few sessions.

Q: Are the effects of EMDR long-lasting?

A: Yes, the reprocessing achieved in EMDR tends to have enduring positive effects.

Q: Can EMDR be combined with other therapeutic approaches?

A: Yes. EMDR can complement other therapeutic approaches and is often integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan.

Q: Can EMDR be combined with medication?

A: Yes, EMDR can be used in conjunction with medication if recommended by a qualified mental health professional.

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