Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy combines trauma therapy with so-called bilateral stimulation – usually in the form of directed eye movements. During an EMDR therapy session, a client works with a mental health professional to address and go over traumatic events, utilizing these side-to-side movements to reduce the severity of the recall, and help associate calmer, more positive emotions with their traumatic memories.

EMDR may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, but it has been an established and evidence-based form of therapy for nearly four decades. Our understanding of how and why EMDR therapy works is outlined through the Adaptive Information Processing model developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 2007. EMDR is a conditionally recommended treatment for trauma-based conditions, including PTSD, and trauma-related substance use disorder.

Understanding EMDR Therapy

Trauma, when characterized as a form of mental scarring, relies on incomplete or damaged processing of occurred events. These events are recurring or repressed partially because of how they have been “incompletely experienced”, like a bump or error that the brain stumbles on time and time again. This is different from “normal” memories, which are stored and associated within the brain correctly.

The trouble with leaving trauma unresolved or untreated is that it inevitably catches up. In addition to common symptoms such as recurring dreams or intrusive thoughts, trauma can result in physical symptoms: overstimulation, acute hyperawareness, increased signs of physical anxiety, and inexplicable panic attacks. After a traumatic event, your fight-or-flight response may become abnormally heightened.
EMDR sets out to help people remember and reprocess a traumatic event, while relying on subtle levels of physical stimulation (such as focusing on an external moving object) to manage the physical and mental response to trauma.

The basic outline for EMDR therapy relies on the proven foundations of traditional talk therapy programs. During an EMDR therapy session, the questions asked, and steps taken will resemble other therapy methods, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapist’s goal will still be to challenge and change a client’s dysfunctional beliefs, or maladaptive coping mechanisms. The key difference lies in how EMDR utilizes the calming effect of bilateral stimulation as a means to help clients get more out of their sessions, and help the brain process and store these memories in a way that does not cause traumatic recollection or negative symptoms.


How EMDR Works

EMDR therapy follows eight steps. These include:

  • Treatment planning. The initial phase of an EMDR process begins with identifying specific goals, triggers, or memories. While trauma-based conditions may have different triggers or recurring thoughts, focusing on one at a time often works best.
  • Treatment preparation. The next phase of the EMDR process involves explaining the treatment, going over how EMDR is applied at The Verve, and practicing bilateral stimulation. Clients are also introduced to the concept of the state change exercise: visualizing a safe, calm place to return to if the processing becomes too intense.
  • Assessment. The third step in an EMDR therapy process involves assessment. This step is recurring between sessions – during assessment, a client’s targeted memory or trigger is assessed by each of its core components. Changes in feeling – emotions and thoughts – are rated on scales of subjective disturbance (0-10, from least to most disturbing), and the validity of a positive thought (0-7, from least to most true).
  • Desensitization. The fourth step involves the meat of the EMDR process, by focusing on the memory or trigger while engaging in bilateral stimulation, or eye movements. As the client goes through processing, they communicate any changes or new sensations with their professional. New information from session to session is used to determine the focus of the next session and steer the treatment.
  • Installation. During the installation phase, a client discusses the memory with their therapist, to reinforce or associate new positive thoughts and emotions.
  • Body scan. The body scan phase asks a client to become aware of their physical reactions when discussing the targeted memory or trigger. Becoming aware of the body’s involuntary, somatic response to trauma is an important step towards reducing disturbance.
  • Session closure. Every session ends with a positive note, one that focuses on safety and emotional containment. If the memory or trigger was not fully processed by the end of that session, the client receives instructions and helpful techniques to cope with somatic or anxious symptoms after the session.
  • Re-evaluation. During the final step of the process, a therapist evaluates the progress made during the session, and identifies target goals for the next session.

EMDR therapy is utilized for trauma-based conditions, such as PTSD – but it can also help treat conditions that co-occur after trauma or are related to trauma-based stress. A thorough client evaluation is needed before determining if EMDR can be a useful modality for the treatment and recovery process.

Is EMDR Therapy Right for You?

EMDR centers around treating trauma-related mental and physical health problems. At The Verve, we consider EMDR one of many different potential modalities or treatment methods for trauma-based health conditions, including addiction, eating disorders, dissociative disorders, and generalized anxiety treatment.

Peer Work at The Verve

A central part of the treatment process for us at The Verve is our peer network. We pair every client with a peer professional and place a great emphasis on the lasting benefits of small and large support networks alike, from friends and family to the general community. We don’t think of treatment as a short-term process but as the first step toward a lifelong commitment.
Our programming helps emphasize the role of these interpersonal relationships in the treatment of trauma-based conditions, and other mental health problems. We are stronger together.


At The Verve, we use evidence-based treatments to tailor programs to clients from all walks of life. Our individualized approach centers on understanding that every person’s needs and circumstances are different.

Interested in learning more about EMDR in Washington DC and how our therapy programs may help you? Contact us by calling (202) 816-6006 or sending us a message via our contact form. Give us a call to schedule an appointment, talk to a treatment professional, or learn more about our different treatment modalities.

Recovery from addiction, mental health needs, or whatever life may throw our way, takes more than just a fresh start.

It takes a dedicated support team, a robust recovery community, and a tailored therapeutic program to help you realize your potential. The Verve IOP is hear to help you, your family, and your entire recovery support team navigate the road ahead, together.

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