What is EMDR therapy?

What is EMDR, and how can it help mental health problems?

If you have a mental health issue, however mild or severe, it’s important to find the right treatment. There are a number of solutions available nowadays that have proved effective, including CBT and mindfulness.
One less well-known approach is EMDR or eye movement desensitisation reprocessing.

First advocated over 30 years ago by Dr Francine Shapiro, it has proved a potent therapeutic tool, particularly for treating conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitisation reprocessing is a therapy that helps people recover from problems that have been triggered by past traumatic events.

woman's eyes in mirror

While it has been used a lot in treating individuals with PTSD, it may also have applications for a variety of mental health issues including work-related stress, depression and anxiety. It can be used as a starting point for therapy and is used in conjunction with other approaches such as CBT.

How Does EMDR Work?

Someone who has experienced a traumatic event may be unable to process the enormity of what happened to them fully. Recall can be so intense and the brain can often appear to be so stuck in a loop that the strength of the memory (and its psychological impact) remains vivid and problematic.
EMDR works to help unstick this cycle and desensitise the individual by using certain simple physical actions. A person may be asked, for example, to recall the traumatic event while being subject to a small physical stimulus at the same time. This could be simply moving the eyes from side to side, hearing a sound in alternate ears or feeling a tapping sensation on alternate hands.

While this sounds very basic, it is a complex process. It’s thought that adding the stimulus makes the brain work harder. That means the individual is focusing less on the traumatic event and automatically reducing its intensity. Over time, the person distances themselves from the event and they are better able to control it.

In Europe, one of the biggest advocates of EMDR is Ad de Jongh from the University of Amsterdam who has undertaken a lot of research in this area. While most of the initial studies have focused on PTSD, recent research has begun to look at how EMDR can be used to treat mental health conditions such as depression and low self-esteem that may be influenced by past traumatic events.

Woman looking at her eyes after successful EMDR


When we think of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, we often focus on ‘soldiers who have been in war situations. It’s a mental health problem that can affect anyone who has had an adverse situation in their lives and it is more common than many people think.

With PTSD, this past event (or events) remain vivid and intense despite the passing of time. It’s something which affects a person’s life so markedly that they are unable to function properly. EMDR has been clinically shown to reduce the impact of PTSD by helping reduce the intensity of the experience.

Stress (Work-related stress)

Work-related stress continues to affect many of us in modern society and has lead to various mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. EMDR, along with other therapies such as CBT and mindfulness, are used to help individuals cope with their daily stress and help reduce its impact.

Woman depressed and low-mood sitting alone in room avoiding people

Low mood

While we all suffer a low mood at some time, if this type of feeling persists, it is often a symptom that something more serious is going on. A qualified therapist will look at a variety of things when helping to diagnose someone with any psychological problem.
In some circumstances, EMDR may prove an effective treatment, but your therapist will also look at options such as CBT, health and fitness and whether mindfulness practice can help.

Low self-esteem

Poor self-esteem usually has several different causes and develops over a long period. There is some emerging evidence that EMDR will help improve things.

A therapist may, for example, get the person to close their eyes and think back to the first time when they had negative feelings about themselves and use alternate tapping to reduce the intensity.

This can help the individual approach negative times in their lives that previously may have been too painful to think clearly about. Used in combination with a therapeutic approach such as CBT, it is possible to help people overcome their problems with low self-esteem and have a more positive outlook on life.


1 in 4 people in the UK suffer from some form of depression and, along with anxiety, it remains one of the most prevalent mental health issues of our time. Depression has a wide variety of causes and treatment will depend on a number of factors.
EMDR may well be able to help those whose depression has an underlying cause of some past traumatic event, and there is evidence to support this.

Woman stressed and anxious clutching her head in cramp


EMDR can again help to break the association between the cause of someone’s anxiety and the feelings themselves. Again, it’s generally used in conjunction with another therapy such as CBT to develop more positive feelings and behaviours further.


Anger is generally a symptom of other issues and, for some people, psychological damage. It may be caused by perceptions of past events and investigating the root causes of someone’s anger issues is something a therapist will work through to find the underlying cause. EMDR may be used as a part of this along with other therapies.


As with many mental health problems, trouble sleeping can have a wide range of different causes. Getting a good night’s sleep is vital for anyone. A disorder could be caused by psychological conditions such as PTSD, work-related stress, as well as health conditions such as illness and poor diet.
It’s the job of the therapist to explore the underlying reasons why someone has a sleep disorder, and EMDR may again be a suitable treatment for some cases, at least in the initial stages of exploration.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are often very intense and debilitating, and EMDR can help individuals disassociate themselves from these feelings so that they can begin exploring the root causes and finding solutions.

Woman addicted to smoking


Drink, food and drug addiction also have a deeper underlying cause, and this may well involve past traumatic events. EMDR should help individuals to explore their past and, along with therapies such as CBT, enable them to find ways to reduce their addiction.


The majority of phobias start in childhood and gradually worsen as we grow up to be adults. There is emerging evidence that EMDR can be used to face an individual’s fear and help reduce the intensity of their feelings and find coping mechanisms.

Woman happy after EMDR

If you feel yourself or someone you know can benefit from EMDR (which we uniquely and with great success combine with CBT and Mindfulness) then please contact us on 020 3951 7285 or via our contact page.

5 comments on “What is EMDR therapy?

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