EMDR therapy and a picture of the brain
Picture of Dr Tanya McDonnaugh

Dr Tanya McDonnaugh

Clinical Psychologist and founder of Talk.Manage.Change

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, with high profile individuals like Prince Harry  having talked about their successes with EMDR therapy. But EMDR therapy also has a very strong evidence base, with a large number of scientific studies attesting to its effectiveness. EMDR therapy is recommended by both NICE and WHO, so it’s no wonder that EMDR therapy is quickly becoming a therapy of interest for lots of people seeking mental health support.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is an evidence-based integrative psychotherapy. It is used as a treatment for Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and other mental health problems such as: anxiety, OCD, phobias, somatic symptoms (symptoms that appear in the body). EMDR therapy is based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. This says that much of the mental and emotional difficulties we experience are due to the way certain memories are encoded or stored in the brain, which leads to incomplete processing of traumatic or disturbing adverse life experiences. We remain wedded to unhelpful beliefs about ourselves and others, or are triggered, responding with what can feel like disproportionate levels of anxiety or worry.

Trauma expert Dan Siegal says – “the drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong that the brain will continue to try to make sense of an experience until it succeeds”. This explains why we often find it so hard to let go of difficult experiences from the past. This can show up consciously in our behaviour, for example an avoidance of flying, or unconsciously in our relationships where we might repeat certain patterns or find ourselves being triggered in a way that feels disproportionate to the present situation. That’s essentially the AIP system in the brain trying to do its job, but sometimes this system needs a bit of help, and EMDR can be that help.

8 Phases of EMDR Therapy

There are 8 phases of EMDR therapy, although your EMDR therapist may adapt these to meet your needs. These 8 phases of EMDR include: history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitisation, installation, body scanning, closure, and re-evaluation.  

History taking

There are 8 phases of EMDR therapy, although your EMDR therapist may adapt these to meet your needs. These 8 phases of EMDR include: history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitisation, installation, body scanning, closure, and re-evaluation.  


This involves preparing you for the memory processing, by creating a toolbox of helpful resources and learning emotion regulation skills.


Your EMDR therapist will identify target memories and their different components. This will be a memory that has been causing the symptoms.



This stage involves desensitization which allows insights and connections to be made. In this phase, your EMDR therapist will direct you to attend briefly to the memory while the adaptive information processing system is simultaneously stimulated using bilateral stimulation (BLS). During this phase, you will engage in sets of BLS, this can be eye movements, taps or tones, for approximately 30 seconds each. It is during this process that the “stuck memory” is transformed into a learning experience, and an adaptive resolution is observed. New and adaptive emotions, thoughts and memories emerge, and old and counterproductive ones are resolved. For example, the feelings of shame and fear felt by a victim of an assault at the beginning of an EMDR session may be replaced by the feeling that they are a strong and resilient.


This phase involves installing new adaptive information by concentrating on a desired positive belief that you want. You will be directed to think of the positive belief and the memory while your EMDR therapist directs further BLS.


Body scan

In the body scan stage, you will be asked to think of the memory, and the positive belief, and scan to see if there are any disturbances in the body.


If no disturbance is detected the Closure phase begins. This involves brining you back to the present moment and revisiting resources from your toolbox.


The memory will be re-evaluated at the next session, if the memory is resolved the therapy will progress to the next target memory.

Who Can Use EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is recognised as an effective therapy for adults and also for children and adolescents (World Health Organization, 2013). It has been shown to help adults, children and adolescents with a range of psychological difficulties. There may be some conditions where EMDR therapy may not be advisable, such as under the use of certain medications, or when there is active drug and alcohol dependency. It is best to discuss this with your EMDR therapist who will advise you on any contraindications.

Find an EMDR Therapist near you

EMDR therapy can be carried out effectively both online and face to face, so it should be fairly easy find an EMDR therapist near you. Like with any psychological therapy it is important to make sure you seek treatment from a qualified therapist and don’t just take what you see at face value. Check they are registered with a professional body like the HCPC, that they have adequate insurance, and their level of  skill and experience matches the support you need. Have a chat and get a feel for their interpersonal style. If you are looking for EMDR for relationship difficulties or have experience of relationship (attachment) trauma, you may want to find an EMDR therapist who has additional training and knowledge on attachment.


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