What is EMDR Therapy & How Does It Work?

Home > What is EMDR Therapy & How Does It Work?

EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a psychotherapy treatment approach that can be beneficial for those suffering from addiction, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and other types of trauma. As part of our dedication to offering individualized care to each of our clients, EMDR therapy is one of many mental health treatment services we provide at Northbound Treatment.

So, what is EMDR therapy, and how does it work? Here’s a detailed breakdown of the trauma therapy model, including how it works, what to expect from an EMDR session at a rehabilitation center, and the eight phases of treatment.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is an effective treatment approach that can help individuals heal from the mental and emotional distress they continuously experience as a result of a traumatic event. EMDR was first developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro and follows her adaptive information processing (AIP) model. 

With eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, the therapist laterally moves their hand back and forth across the patient’s field of view. While the patient tracks the hand movement with their eyes, they begin to process certain aspects of a selected disturbing memory — without having to discuss the emotional trauma verbally. EMDR fares especially well for patients who may be reluctant to talk about their painful memories and experiences.

The three-pronged therapy method involves:

  • Addressing traumatic memories and current disturbing situation that cause psychological turmoil
  • Alleviating the impact of these distressing thoughts and memories by developing alternative responses
  • Developing vital skills for creating healthy thought patterns moving forward

Since it encourages growth within the trauma treatment process, the approach fits into Northbound’s continuum of care. Research has shown that EMDR can offer healing benefits that are up to par with traditional psychotherapy but in a shorter amount of time. By addressing the underlying emotional wounds of trauma, EMDR effectively allows the brain’s information processing system to heal organically in many patients.

How EMDR Therapy Works: The 8 Phases of EMDR Treatment

EMDR is an eight-phase treatment technique that uses stimulated eye movements during most or all of the sessions. Some of the phases may be completed within a single session, while others will take longer. Patients typically meet with a therapist once or twice a week for up to 12 sessions. Here’s how each phase works and what clients can expect from a session.

Phase 1

Phase 1 of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy involves one or more sessions in which the psychotherapist evaluates the client’s compatibility and readiness for the treatment. The client and therapist will work to identify potential targets (traumatic memories or thoughts) to be processed with EMDR. An effective treatment plan is also established, and the client learns which behaviors and skills they will need to develop to achieve the best possible outcome at every phase.

Phase 2

EMDR aims to deliver fast yet effective behavioral changes while teaching the patient how to remain emotionally balanced. During Phase 2, the psychotherapist emphasizes the notion that the client is capable of reacting to psychological distress in many different ways — including positive, productive responses and some that are more negative or debilitating. Additionally, they’ll outline a variety of response techniques for distress and anxiety and encourage the client to try to use them in between therapy sessions.

Phase 3

During Phase 3, the client and therapist will select the first target to be processed through EMDR from those discussed in the first phase. In order to successfully process the target, the client must identify vivid imagery they associate with the memory, their physical and emotional reactions to the memory, and a negative belief about themself.

Phase 4

In the fourth phase of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment, the patient will identify a positive belief about themself. With the therapist’s guidance, they will rate both their positive and negative beliefs. Then while applying EMDR stimulation, the therapist directs the client to focus intently on the imagery associated with the memory, their negative belief, and their physical reactions to the target. The client will also be asked to observe any spontaneous reactions, thoughts, and sensations that occur while the target is being processed. Depending on the client’s spontaneous responses, EMDR stimulation may or may not be repeated.

Phase 5

The fifth and sixth phases are somewhat like checkpoints for EMDR therapy. Once the client reports that they no longer experience distress relating to the traumatic memory, they will be instructed to think of the pre-identified positive belief. If the positive belief helps the client successfully process the memory and heal from the trauma, it may be used again for other targets. However, it can also be adjusted if needed.

Phase 6

During this stage, the psychotherapist determines whether the patient is ready to move on to another target. If so, they will select one accordingly. On the other hand, if the patient becomes anxious during an EMDR session or is having a difficult time processing a target, the therapist will reevaluate their readiness and work to get them back on track.

Phase 7

Phase 7 of EMDR focuses on closure. During this stage, the client is asked to use a written log in between their next sessions. The purpose of the log is to remind them of self-calming exercises and healthy response techniques that were developed in Phase 2. The client can also use it to record any other useful concepts or tactics they’ve learned in EMDR therapy.

Phase 8

In Phase 8, the patient and EMDR therapist will look back at the completed treatment sessions and reflect on the progress that’s been made. The ultimate goal of EMDR therapy is to process all traumatic memories and current distress. During this stage, additional sessions will be scheduled if needed.

The Effectiveness of EMDR Therapy

Since EMDR was first developed over three decades ago, millions of people have been successfully treated for a range of psychological and emotional issues. Research has demonstrated the rapid and effective results of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing treatment.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that out of 22 participants with PTSD and psychotic disorder who underwent EMDR therapy, 77% saw improvement in their symptoms. In another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology that studied 80 people with traumatic memories, 77% of the participants who experienced recurring trauma and 100% of the single-trauma participants overcame their PTSD after six sessions.

In 2015, the peer-reviewed journal Brain and Behavior published a study evaluating the effectiveness of EMDR therapy on depression. In an inpatient setting, 32 participants with mild to moderate depression were treated with EMDR. Each participant completed five to eight sessions, depending on their individual needs, and 68% showed a reduction in their depressive symptoms. Aside from PTSD, trauma, addiction, and depression, EMDR therapy can also be useful for treating anxiety, panic disorder, and eating disorders.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Trauma and addiction are complex psychological conditions that are influenced by several factors, such as brain chemistry, environment, lifestyle, and past experiences. In many instances, substance abuse will coincide with another mental health issue. 

Northbound Treatment utilizes EMDR therapy as a primary treatment modality for those struggling with substance abuse issues and mental health disorders. This is called a dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorder.

Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Stress and addiction
  • Anxiety and benzodiazepine addiction
  • Depression and alcoholism
  • Codependency and alcoholism
  • Bipolar disorder and alcoholism

Many individuals cope with their mental health disorders by turning to drugs or alcohol. However, addiction also can occur first in some cases, which can then lead to another psychological condition. Although it’s not always apparent whether addiction or a mental health disorder occurred first, dual diagnosis treatment is a comprehensive and effective solution for managing both.

Residential Rehab and Outpatient Programs in Orange County

At Northbound Treatment, we are dedicated to making sure our trauma therapy programs fit each of our clients’ individual needs — rather than pushing a particular treatment modality onto a patient who may not benefit from it. This is why we offer EMDR therapy in addition to a wide range of other effective psychotherapy methods, such as cognitive processing therapy (CPT), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), psychodrama, single-event trauma stage processing, experiential therapy and art therapy for trauma.

The right time to start treatment is today. Northbound offers a variety of personalized residential rehab and outpatient treatment programs in Orange County, California, including telehealth outpatient treatment to support clients in their own home. We accept all major insurance plans and work with clients to come up with payment plans that work for their unique needs and situation.

If you think you or a loved one might benefit from EMDR therapy or another psychotherapy approach for co-occurring disorders, call Northbound Treatment at (844) 919-0403 or fill out our online form.

For more insights on trauma therapy, check out our blogs on Accelerated Resolution Therapy and Trauma Informed Care today.


  1. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, May 2017, www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing
  2. Gotter, Ana. “EMDR Therapy for Trauma and PTSD: Benefits, Side Effects, and More.” Healthline.com. N.p., 15 Dec. 2017., https://www.healthline.com/health/emdr-therapy
  3. van den Berg, David P. G., and Mark van der Gaag. “Treating Trauma in Psychosis with EMDR: A Pilot Study.” Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry 43.1 (2012): 664–671. Print., https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000579161100098X
  4. Hase, Michael et al. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in the Treatment of Depression: A Matched Pairs Study in an Inpatient Setting.” Brain and behavior 5.6 (2015): e00342. Print., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4467776/
  5. “What Is EMDR? | EMDR Institute – EYE MOVEMENT DESENSITIZATION AND REPROCESSING THERAPY.” Emdr.com. N.p., n.d., https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/

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