Is EMDR Right for Me?

Can you train your eyes to help you overcome trauma? I tried eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy…Here’s what I learned.

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Mar 10, 2022 UPDATED
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The first time I heard of EMDR was from a therapist. I was in my final year of undergraduate studies, and I’d just returned home after a weeklong visit to my boyfriend, who lived out of state. It had been a wonderful visit. During the day. 

But at night, we were subjected to the incessant screams, wails, and incoherent yelling of his elderly neighbor upstairs, who, we would soon learn, suffered from advanced stages of dementia. Most nights, we would call the paramedics. 

Some nights, they’d leave after evaluating her (she was clearly not being attacked; she could identify the month, year, and president), other nights, they’d take her to the hospital, only to release her the next morning. And then the screams would begin anew. 

It was a nightmare—though we knew it couldn’t possibly be as painful as it was for the woman who suffered so much as to scream and cry inconsolably at 3:00 AM. After a week, I returned home sleep-deprived, sad for the woman I’d never even met, and also relieved to get some rest in my quiet apartment. 

Witnessing a trauma—even just hearing it happen to someone else—is a trauma. 

But after a few days, the screams returned. They were still inside my head, trapped. Sometimes they’d arise as I tried to fall asleep at night, sometimes I’d hear them while trying to read, or write, or work. I started hearing them on the bus, or while walking to class. I’d get shaky and scared, and was afraid that at any point the screams would start and I’d not be able to hear anything else. 

A friend suggested that I might be suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress. This was hard to believe, or accept; if anyone had been traumatized it was my boyfriend’s upstairs neighbor, I had only been a witness to it. But as it turns out, witnessing a trauma—even just hearing it happen to someone else—is a trauma. 

I was fortunate enough to have health insurance through my university and was able to make an appointment with a licensed therapist at the campus counseling center the following week. Within a few minutes of sharing my predicament, the therapist explained that my symptoms were typical of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. She suggested that I try something called EMDR. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. 

What is EMDR? 

EMDR is a form of therapy that works with a person’s eyes, and the relationship between a person’s eyes and their brain. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, who found a link between the way the body stores memory in the unconscious, the brain’s filing system, and how we interact with it via eye movement.[1]

EMDR is thought to accelerate that process by directing the eyes in similar rapid movements while the patient is awake.

A good example of this occurs every night for most people: During the dream phase or REM (rapid eye movement) phase of deep sleep, which usually occurs every 90 minutes or so, our eyes move rapidly behind our closed lids. It’s not known exactly why this occurs, but it has been hypothesized that it is linked to how the brain processes memories and unconscious thoughts, and even how memories are moved from emotional memories to episodic ones.[2]

EMDR is thought to accelerate that process by directing the eyes in similar rapid movements while the patient is awake. The thinking is that if your eyes behave the way they do when you’re unconsciously “converting” emotional memories into episodic memories, your brain will perform that conversion—almost out of habit—even though you’re conscious.[3]

It has also been hypothesized that by moving the eyes from one side to the other—called bilateral movement—the person undergoing EMDR is not only focusing their attention elsewhere during the recollection of a traumatic event, but is also stimulating both the left and right side of the brain, something else that has been shown to help dissipate the potency of traumatic memories.

Bilateral movement of the body, such as running, swimming, and even dancing or drumming—basically any activity where both right and left limbs and sides of the body are engaged in alternating, coordinated movements—has also been shown to alleviate depression and to help the brain recover from trauma.[4]

In this way, EMDR is in some ways similar to art or music therapy, which help the patient to cope, process, and to eventually detach from traumatic events. Engaging in visual art or playing music require the coordination of both the right and left side of the brain, or in other terms, the cognitive and emotional processes at once.

All are used as effective treatments for PTSD, and all have been shown to have lasting positive outcomes.[5]

 A Monarch by SimplePractice illustration of an orange flower in a brown pot.

How does EMDR work? 

Of course, I knew none of this at the time. So the counselor explained to me that EMDR was something she could perform in her office—and assured me it wouldn’t be physically painful. She told me to relax, and to follow her finger with my eyes as she swept it back and forth in front of my face.

But after that first session, I slept fine.

Then, she asked me to recall the traumatic experience I kept reliving. As I described the nightly episodes of hearing the elderly woman in utter despair and distress, the counselor moved her finger in a series of repeated motions, up and down, and side to side in a pattern I could not discern. And then, we stopped. 

She explained that we would do this again in our following session, and possibly again each week for a few weeks if necessary. 

But after that first session, I slept fine. I woke up the next morning without any hint of someone else’s screams inside my head. A full day went by before I even thought about the terrified woman, and even then, as I recalled the screaming, it was just that: a recollection, and not the actual experience recreating itself in my head. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that shows the professional organizations that support EMDR therapy.

Is EMDR effective? 

Multiple independent studies have shown EMDR to be a safe and effective form of treatment for a variety of traumatic and post-traumatic stress disorders. It is recommended by the American Psychiatric Association, and in 2017, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs gave EMDR the highest form of recommendation for treatment of PTSD and other traumatic stress.[6]

As my personal experience shows, one may see progress almost immediately, though common treatment plans involving EMDR vary from six to 12 sessions. EMDR treatment is safe and non-invasive, and used all over the world.[7]

As for me, over 20 years later, I’ve not experienced a repeat at all of the PTSD symptoms associated with those nights I was witness to another person’s trauma and episodes of terror.

I believe a lot of that has to do with the passage of time, of course, but most of all, with the effectiveness of EMDR in helping my brain to move the traumatic memory from a recurring, emotional experience into simply an episodic memory. I’m able to recall the experience via a distant and detached lens as I have here, instead of with emotional attachment and the actual “reliving” of the events. 

I wish I was able to report back on the fate of the woman whose screams led to the trauma in the first place. A few weeks after I had returned home and begun my own treatment, her adult children moved her out of her apartment, and moved her into an assisted living home so that she could receive constant care and monitoring.

I don’t know for sure if her symptoms improved, but I do know that dementia itself can be an incredibly lonely disease, and I try to take heart in hoping that she was able to receive both the care and social interaction we all require for well-being in the remaining years of her life. 

A Monarch by SimplePractice infographic that lists what EMDR has been effective in treating.

How do I find a therapist trained in EMDR? 

Most therapy directories allow therapy seekers to search by speciality, and therapists who are certified to perform EMDR treatments will often list it in their bio or credentials. If you have a therapist, you can ask them if they are qualified to perform EMDR, or if they would be willing to recommend an EMDR professional. 

Whether you are seeking EMDR or know someone who is contemplating EMDR, you can be assured that it is a safe, well-researched, and minimally-invasive form of treatment for a wide variety of post-traumatic afflictions. The positive benefits after EMDR have been shown to be long-lasting, and to have helped people live healthier, happier lives. 

Monarch can help you find a EMDR therapist

Monarch is an online mental health directory and scheduling platform available to patients free-of-charge. The website enables patients to search for therapists that specialize in EMDR . Then, you can view open appointments in therapist’s schedules, and make an appointment online, often without ever having to pick up the phone.

Think you might have PTSD?

Take our PTSD Quiz to see if you may be suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder.

Do you know your attachment style? 

Take this free, online Attachment Styles Quiz today to find out your attachment style. Get a free, customized report too! Knowing your attachment style is the first step to understanding why you act the way you do. 

Article originally published Feb 2, 2021. Updated Mar 10, 2022.
  1. Shapiro, F. (1989). Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2, 199-223.

  2. Pagani, M., Amann, B. L., Landin-Romero, R., & Carletto, S. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing and slow wave sleep: a putative mechanism of action. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01935

  3. APA. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing

  4. Bradburn, L. (2020). Activate your inner happiness with bilateral brain stimulations. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/the-innovation/activate-your-inner-happiness-with-bilateral-brain-stimulations-bfda14f194fe

  5. National Center for PTSD. (2014). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for PTSD. Retrieved from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/understand_tx/emdr.asp

  6. VA/DoD. (2017) Management of post-traumatic stress disorder and acute stress reaction. VA/DoD Clinical Practice Guidelines. Retrieved from: https://www.healthquality.va.gov/guidelines/MH/ptsd/

  7. APA. (2017). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/treatments/eye-movement-reprocessing

  8. EMDR Institute. (2020). What is EMDR? Retrieved from: https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/


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