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How does EMDR Work, Simplified?

how does emdr work?

Imagine you could go back in time and rewrite your past. What would you change? What if instead of changing your past, you could change your current experience of the past—how your past affects you today? EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, essentially allows you to do this. 

In this blog we will explore how this groundbreaking approach taps into the mind’s innate healing powers, recoding and recontextualizing traumatic experiences within the structure of memory. Before we get started, if you’re looking for EMDR in Grand Rapids click here to begin our scheduling process. Now let’s jump in and learn!


What is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?

EMDR therapy is an interactive psychotherapy technique used to relieve psychological stress. It’s a relatively new therapy, developed in the 1980s, but has gained substantial credibility over the years. The core of EMDR is its ability to help our brains reprocess memories of traumatic or triggering events.


The Process: Simplifying the Complex

EMDR therapy might sound technical, but let’s break it down. The fundamental idea behind EMDR is that our brains have the natural ability to heal from trauma, much like our bodies recover from physical injury. When a disturbing event occurs, it can create a “blockage” (metaphorically, not literally) that prevents your brain from processing it properly. EMDR aims to remove this “blockage” and allow the brain to heal.

The therapy involves eight distinct phases, focusing primarily on the past, present, and future aspects of a traumatic or distressing event. During the sessions, the therapist will guide your eye movements while you recall a distressing event. This process is similar to the natural eye movement that occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, a phase where your brain processes daily emotional experiences. This bilateral movement of your eyes helps keep your nervous system in a relaxed state as you re-experience the traumatic memory.



A unique feature of this approach is that you don’t need to talk about the traumatic event with your counselor. For individuals who just don’t feel comfortable sharing, this can be a huge benefit to the method.


Understanding The 8 EMDR Phases

The eight phases of EMDR therapy form the core structure of this unique treatment approach. Let’s delve into each phase to provide a more comprehensive understanding:

Phase 1: History Taking and Treatment Planning

  • Objective: The therapist gathers information about the client’s history and identifies potential traumatic memories for treatment.
  • Process: This phase involves discussing the client’s past experiences, current situations, and future goals. The therapist will use this information to create a personalized treatment plan, identifying specific targets (such as traumatic memories, current triggers, and future stressors) for EMDR processing.

Phase 2: Preparation

  • Objective: To establish trust and explain the EMDR process. The therapist also equips the client with coping strategies.
  • Process: The therapist introduces the client to the EMDR process, explaining what EMDR is, how it works, and what to expect. This phase also involves teaching the client various stress-reduction techniques to handle emotional distress, a crucial skill for managing any overwhelming feelings that might arise during or after therapy.

Phase 3: Assessment

  • Objective: To activate the target memory for reprocessing.
  • Process: In this phase, the therapist asks the client to select a specific memory to target. The client identifies the most vivid image related to the memory, a negative belief about themselves, related emotions, and body sensations. Additionally, they identify a positive belief they would like to have. The therapist helps the client rate the intensity of the negative emotions and the credibility of the positive belief.

Phase 4: Desensitization

  • Objective: To diminish the emotional impact of the memory.
  • Process: This is where the core of EMDR occurs. The therapist guides the client in focusing on the traumatic memory while simultaneously inducing bilateral stimulation (such as eye movements, taps, or tones). This process continues with different aspects of the memory until the client reports that the distress is reduced.

Phase 5: Installation

  • Objective: To strengthen the positive belief identified in Phase 3.
  • Process: The therapist focuses on the positive belief the client wants to have. Using bilateral stimulation, the therapist works to reinforce this positive belief until it feels fully valid to the client when thinking about the original traumatic event.

Phase 6: Body Scan

  • Objective: To identify and clear any residual somatic distress.
  • Process: The client is asked to bring the traumatic memory to mind and notice if there is any residual physical discomfort. If any is found, the therapist uses more EMDR processing to target these physical sensations until the client feels no significant distress.

Phase 7: Closure

  • Objective: To return the client to equilibrium at the end of the session.
  • Process: This phase ensures that the client leaves every therapy session feeling better than they did at the start. If the processing of a particularly distressing memory isn’t completed in a single session, the therapist will use various techniques to help the client regain a sense of control and stability.

Phase 8: Reevaluation

  • Objective: To assess the efficacy of the treatment and plan future sessions.
  • Process: At the beginning of subsequent sessions, the therapist checks to ensure that the results achieved in the previous session have been maintained. The therapist and client then review the progress made and decide whether to target the same memory in the next session or move on to a new one.



How Does the Brain Respond to EMDR?

Neuroscientific research has shed light on how EMDR helps process traumatic memories. During therapy, the bilateral eye movements engage a part of our brain called the superior colliculus. This part of our brain assists with directing our attention. It’s also connected to a number of regions involved in emotional processing. It seems that as the traumatic memory is recalled, the conscious direction of eye movements helps the brain to rewire the fear response stored with the memory.


EMDR for Anxiety and Depression

EMDR therapy has shown positive results in treating both anxiety and depression. As you change the way your brain stores and processes traumatic memories, the symptoms created by those memories are naturally relieved. By reprocessing these memories, EMDR can alleviate symptoms related to anxiety and depression, offering a new perspective and reducing the emotional response to memories.


Dangers and Side Effects of EMDR

Because it is unusual, people often want to know if EMDR is safe. Like any therapy, EMDR comes with its considerations. While it’s generally safe, especially when conducted by a trained and certified therapist, there are potential side effects. These might include headaches, fatigue, emotional sensitivity, vivid dreams, and, in rare cases, nausea. These side effects are typically temporary and considered part of the healing journey. As long as your therapist is trained and certified in EMDR there is nothing to worry about.


EMDR in West Michigan

If you’re looking for EMDR therapy in West Michigan, the Truism Center has you covered. Our EMDR counselors will make sure you feel comfortable and well-informed, and will guide you every step of your journey. We have EMDR counselors in Grand Rapids as well as one EMDR counselor in Grandville. All our counselors can perform EMDR via “virtual appointment”, so we can book clients for EMDR anywhere in Michigan. Click here, or call 616 209-9295 to begin the booking process.



EMDR therapy is a compelling tool in the world of mental health, offering a unique approach to dealing with traumatic memories. Its power lies in its ability to mimic natural processes of the brain, providing a gentle yet effective path towards healing. Whether you’re dealing with anxiety, depression, or the effects of trauma, EMDR therapy offers a ray of hope and a way forward. Remember, healing is a journey, and therapies like EMDR are here to guide you through that journey, one step at a time.



Robb Kornoelje is the owner of The Truism Center, a relationship counselor, and the creator of the “30-Day Relationship Challenge.” This 30-day email course offers gentle guidance to identify behaviors causing trouble, find ease with emotions, and enhance self-awareness. With a focus on stress-free communication, the challenge encourages a stronger connection with others, nurturing compassion, and fostering forgiveness. Join Robb on this journey to improve the fabric of your relationships—one day at a time.