Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)

By Carol Goh  |  Published on 12 May 2021

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EMDR is a therapeutic technique that is often used to treat people who have experienced trauma. It helps to address the causes of symptoms such as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and mood swings. EMDR is being one of the most important techniques for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Every person is shaped by their experiences. There is no doubt that how we grew up influences us. Experiences heavily influence our characters and our responses to the world. These experiences we encountered became encoded in our memory networks and formed the basis of how we perceive the world.

Our past experiences can either be positive or negative. And even the most supportive families can still leave children with unprocessed negative memories. When left unprocessed and stored in its raw form, such negative memories can cause us to overreact or act in a way that hurts us or those around us. This can affect our current functioning in all areas of our lives (Shapiro, 2013).

Though whatever we have experienced in the past is over, these experiences can still affect us greatly in our daily lives. Past hurts can be buried in our subconscious and lay dormant until they are triggered and activated in the present moment. This gives rise to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the words of Shapiro (2016): “The past affects the present even without our being aware of it. This knowledge is probably Freud’s greatest gift to psychology.” EMDR is one of the latest cutting-edge technique that can bring healing to PTSD patients.

What brings people into therapy?

It generally involves one major theme - feeling helpless:

  • “I feel stuck.”
  • “I don’t know why I keep doing these things.”
  • “Why can’t I feel better about myself?”
  • “I know I should think differently, but I don’t.”
  • “I should be able to take action, but I can’t.”
  • “I always see myself as a failure and I cannot get this out of my mind.”

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While there are many therapeutic approaches which can address the mental health issue, EMDR is lauded as an effective treatment for trauma that has been lodged in our subconscious.

Why childhood hurts will stay with us forever if not processed?

Even as adults, a lot of our current emotional hurts can be attributed to negative childhood experiences. Why is that so? It is because childhood is a life stage when we are most vulnerable. In our small frame as a child, we exist amidst a land of giants. We are powerless. We may have childhood experiences that we wish had never happened.

If left unprocessed, we can still experience the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that we had at that time. These experiences stay “hot and alive” regardless of how much time has elapsed. In EMDR therapy, these memories are identified and processed because they are often the foundation of our current symptoms (Shapiro, 2013).

Who are the likely perpetrators of our hurts during childhood?

The people who likely to have hurt us, whether intentional or accidental, can come from our family such as parents, siblings, and even relatives.

Our school environment is another common venue where our past hurts have originated. We may have been hurt by our teachers, principals, classmates, and school mates.

Negative beliefs to be processed

Because of the hurting experiences, we accumulate various negative beliefs about ourselves subconsciously as we advance in years. This may have led you to build up various self-defeating beliefs such as:

  • I am a failure
  • I am worthless (inadequate)
  • I am shameful
  • I am not lovable
  • I am not good enough
  • I am ugly (my looks and body are awful)
  • I am stupid (not smart enough)
  • I am insignificant (unimportant)
  • I am a disappointment
  • I am not accepted
  • I deserve to die

When we speak of emotional processing using EMDR, it does not mean simply talking for hours and dishing out advice. Rather, we will revisit the past incidents in detail one at a time, allowing our mind to process what has happened in a sensory, cognitive, and emotional way in a safe and controlled environment.

What is different about EMDR?

EMDR focuses on the brain’s ability to learn constantly, taking past experiences, and updating them with present information. The aim of EMDR is to update the positive new learnings in our memory network systems.

EMDR is a therapy in which a series of procedures are used to organize the negative and positive feelings, emotions, and thoughts the individual is experiencing. It then resolves these disturbing memories using bilateral stimulation such as eye movements or alternating tapping.

"EMDR resolves these disturbing memories using bilateral stimulation such as eye movements or alternating tapping."

How is EMDR different from talk cognitive therapy?

It is not unusual that therapists will try to talk sense to their clients with their presenting problems. We are more than able to dish out logic, reasoning, statistics, and examples in order to convince clients to move from maladaptive thinking to rational thoughts. Which means to be effective in solving clients’ issues, it will require clients’ willpower, determination, and even faith in themselves to solve their problems and get themselves out of their miserable state.

However, more often than not, this technique of talking sense does not work as expected. Why is that so? According to Shapiro (2016), “The truth is that being unable to process one’s own suffering has nothing to do with intelligence, personal strength, fortitude, or spirituality.

Insight is not the cause of change but a manifestation of change. We can see in EMDR that one’s unprocessed feelings are at the core of the problem. We can have intellectual understandings that have no impact on the emotions or on physiologically driven negative behaviours. For example, people of the highest intelligence can still eat too much, drink too much, overwork, or hurt others because of their level of pain. Knowing the reason is not the same as healing.

How does EMDR work?

The function of EMDR processing is to overcome those emotional blocks that are preventing you from living an emotionally healthy life.

EMDR uses rapid sets of eye movements to help you update disturbing experiences, much like what occurs when we sleep. During sleep, we alternate between regular sleep and REM (rapid eye movement). This sleep pattern helps you process things that are troubling you.

According to Grand (2001), when clients describe and feel an image or a negative memory, they are activating the place where it is held in the nervous system - in the body, hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain.

According to Grand (2001), EMDR is a “bottom up” therapy. It activates body memory, which travels through the primitive regions of the brain and ultimately arrives at the thinking brain for final analysis and resolution. By contrast, talk therapy is a “top down” approach which information enters through the cortical brain with limited access to the emotional brain and even less access to the hindbrain and the body. This explains why talk therapy alone accomplishes such limited success with body-centered conditions like PTSD.

EMDR is healing past hurts in the present

We are not and should not be responsible for the negative experiences we had as children as they were inflicted upon us. However, as adults, we are responsible for deciding what to do about them. It is time we put a stop to such hurts that are germinating in us.

Using EMDR, it is possible to revisit the past and heal it. The earlier you receive the intervention, the better.

"Using EMDR, it is possible to revisit the past and heal it. The earlier you receive the intervention, the better."

Clinicians talk about a phenom­enon called “posttraumatic growth” (Shapiro, 2013), whereby people experienced renewed spirit of confidence, positivity, relief, and a new meaning in life. Clients who are healed can give positive answers to questions such as “What have I learned?”, “How has it shaped me?”, “How can I use it for the benefit of my future?”, and “How can I use my experience to help someone?”.

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Types of traumas that EMDR is used on effectively

‘T’ traumas

  • Car accident
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Death of closed ones

‘t’ traumas

  • Shame (teased on physique, performance, etc…)
  • Victim of bullies/cyberbullies (isolation, name calling, teasing)
  • Not meeting up to parental expectations (feeling ‘I’m a failure’ or ‘I am not good enough’)
  • Emotional abuse
  • Mental stress
  • Interpersonal conflicts
  • Work stress
  • Exam stress
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Traumas are often the source of client’s presenting issues resulting in symptoms such as depression and anxiety. If these sources are processed and resolved, such symptoms will eventually disappear. Hence symptomatic signs that EMDR can effectively resolve are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Unforgiveness

Latest research using EMDR on PTSD, bipolar and psychosis patients

The latest research by Voorendonk et al. (2020) revealed the majority, over 85%, of the patients diagnosed with Complex PTSD lost their symptoms of both PTSD and Complex-PTSD diagnosis after 8 days of intensive trauma-focused treatment whereby EMDR was administered.

Another study headed by Jongh et al. (2020) showed that using EMDR on patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD) significantly decreases their symptoms. Of the 35 patients with a positive screen for BPD at pre-treatment, 32.7% lost their positive screen at post-treatment. The results showed that for PTSD patients with elevated symptoms of BPD, intensive trauma-focused treatment using EMDR is a workable treatment. The patients’ BPD symptoms were found to decrease together with the PTSD symptoms.

According to a systematic review conducted by Adams et al. (2020), he found EMDR was associated with reduced delusional and negative symptoms, and decreasing reliance on mental health service and medication. EMDR was also associated with more remissions from psychotic disorders, and considerably fewer readmissions to hospital at 2-year follow-up.

Client's healing journey...

"All my life I had always put aside the idea of counselling, mainly because most times I feel I am capable of handling issues on my own. However, I am truly glad to have gone for sessions with Ms Carol. Before undergoing therapy, I had many buried traumas and feelings. Most that I had put aside for all my life. I needed help coping with incidents from the past and present, ways to cope and overall obtain peace. She used some incredibly useful therapy techniques such as EMDR to work on my past and it worked wonders. I felt released and no longer affected by my past traumas. She uses cute post cards with animals and cartoons on them, with inspirational quotes and motivation that made me feel comforted. Overall, Ms Carol had taught me how to confront my traumas and had also made me feel like my feelings are validated and sometimes it is okay to be affected, that it is indeed okay to be not okay at times. I am more than thankful for the effort she has put into our sessions and I would surely consult her in the future."

Female young adult

Book Recommendations

1. EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy For Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma by Francine Shapiro and Margot Silk Forrest

2. Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro

3. The EMDR Revolution: Change Your Life One Memory At a Time by Tal Croitoru


Adams, R., Ohlsen, S., & Wood, E. (2020). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for the treatment of psychosis: a systematic review. European journal of psychotraumatology, 11(1), 1711349. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2019.1711349.

De Jongh, A., Groenland, G. N., Sanches, S., Bongaerts, H., Voorendonk, E. M., & Van Minnen, A. (2020). The impact of brief intensive trauma-focused treatment for PTSD on symptoms of borderline personality disorder. European journal of psychotraumatology, 11(1), 1721142. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2020.1721142.

Eline M. Voorendonk, Ad De Jongh, Linda Rozendaal & Agnes Van Minnen (2020) Trauma-focused treatment outcome for complex PTSD patients: results of an intensive treatment programme, European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 11:1, 1783955, DOI: 10.1080/20008198.2020.1783955.

Grand, D. (2001). Emotional Healing at Warp speed. NY, US: Harmony Books.

Shapiro, F. (2013). Getting past your past. NY, US: Rodale.

Shapiro, F. (2016). EMDR: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma. NY, US: Basic Books.

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