A small lake surrounded by trees.

In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro was walking around a small lake in a park, and started to feel anxious and experience distressing intrusive thoughts. She noticed that when she moved her eyes back and forth to observe her surroundings, her anxiety lessened and her disturbing thoughts quieted. 

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Dr. Shapiro wondered whether bilateral eye movements (moving the eyes back and forth in both directions) had the same desensitizing effect on others.

She began testing this theory and eventually added other aspects to the treatment, resulting in the development of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

How Does EMDR Work?

"Are you trying to tell me that just moving my eyes back and forth can heal me from trauma?!"

Flaticon Icon It definitely sounds strange at first! And the truth is that no one knows for sure exactly how EMDR works to heal the brain.

One theory: people experience PTSD and related mental health disorders because of traumatic events that happened in the past that weren’t fully processed. Something got stuck in the brain’s natural healing process, kind of like when a cut on your finger doesn’t heal properly because a splinter was caught in it.

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Activating both sides of the brain with EMDR seems to help the brain reprocess traumatic memories in a more adaptive way. The goal is to "change the way that the memory is stored in the brain." You’ll still remember what happened, but without intense feelings of distress.


Which of these events may cause emotional trauma? Select all that apply.

Who Might Benefit From EMDR?

EMDR was developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Flaticon Icon Many therapists also use it to treat a variety of other issues, including:

  • Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias

  • Depression and bipolar disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Grief and loss

  • Sleep disturbance

  • Substance abuse and addiction

What Does EMDR Involve?

Each therapist works a little differently, but if you decide to try EMDR therapy, the process may go something like this:

Flaticon Icon 1. Your therapist will work with you to make a treatment plan by asking you questions about the history of the problem you're dealing with. Together, you'll create a list of distressing events from the past that caused you to develop negative beliefs. (1-2 sessions)

Flaticon Icon 2. Your therapist will explain what you can expect when you begin EMDR. They might also teach you relaxation techniques to use during treatment, like establishing a “safe place” you can go to in your mind. (1-4 sessions)

Flaticon Icon 3. Together with your therapist, you’ll pick an event from the list, and identify what negative self-belief you may have learned from the event (for example, “I'm worthless,” “I'm helpless,” etc.).

You’ll also pick a positive self-belief you would rather believe. Your therapist will ask you to rate how true the positive belief feels, and how distressing the target event feels.

Flaticon Icon 4. Your therapist will induce bilateral eye movements while you focus on the memory. They may move their fingers back and forth and ask you to follow your fingers with your eyes, use a machine with lights that move back and forth, or give you small buzzers to hold in each hand that alternately vibrate and light up.

Usually this is done in sets of 30 to 60 seconds. In between sets, the therapist will ask you what came up for you.

Reprocessing a single traumatic event is usually accomplished within 3 sessions.

The goal is for you to experience no distress around the event and to feel that the positive self-belief is completely true.

Woman says

Take Action

When you're down about the fact that Trauma Changes The Brain, I want you to remember: SO. DOES. HEALING.

-- Dr. Jen Wolkin, clinical psychologist Flaticon Icon


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