Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, more commonly known as EMDR, is an effective and evidence-based therapy used to treat the psychological effects of stress and trauma. Repeated studies show that EMDR rapidly processes and releases traumatic stress trapped in the mind and body as disturbing memories, flashbacks, phobias, tension, anxiety, depression, and self-limiting beliefs. It has also been shown to be effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety, low self-esteem, negative self-talk, and relationship difficulties, and to unlock creative blocks and enhance work and athletic performance. What once took many years to resolve in traditional talk therapy can now be achieved in a relatively short period of time with this gentle yet powerful protocol. Additionally, many people find they experience a new sense of joy, openness, and connectedness with others after treatment with EMDR. According to Dr. Laurel Parnell, who developed an advanced and specialized version of EMDR called Attachment-Focused EMDR, it is “a quantum leap in the human ability to heal trauma and maladaptive beliefs.” 

Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) brings the latest science of early attachment relationships to the EMDR healing framework. “With Parnell’s attachment-based modifications of the EMDR approach, the structural foundations of this integrative framework are adapted to further catalyze integration for individuals who have experienced non-secure attachment and developmental trauma,” (http://parnellemdr.com/attachment-focused-emdr-healing-relational-trauma/). What this means practically is that EMDR, combined with a focus on building emotional resources and the reparative experience of traditional talk therapy, provides the same dramatic results as traditional EMDR for those with relational trauma and attachment deficits. 


How does Attachment-Focused emdr work?

EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (eye movements, touch/tapping, or sound that alternates between both the left and right sides of the body) to access, process, and contextualize emotionally-charged memories and images that were previously causing distress by “free-floating” in the brain and body. It was originally developed by the psychologist Francine Shapiro, who inadvertently found herself able to quickly clear the effects of her own traumatic experiences using side-to-side rapid eye movements.

EMDR is understood to work similarly to REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), in which the brain processes and stores the emotional events of the day. It is believed that EMDR functions as a similar kind of processing and storing system accelerator, providing emotional distance, context, and clarity to previously overwhelming traumatic memories.

Try this metaphor: Imagine your brain as a filing cabinet where your memory files are stored. Trauma memories never get filed, so they float around and interfere with daily life in the forms of nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, depression, and other distressing symptoms. EMDR is a way of filing those memories away so that you have access to them if you want it, but they otherwise remain fixed in a secure location until which time you choose to retrieve them.


Focusing on past, present, and future, the 8 phase treatment begins with an assessment and developmental history of the client. Then a treatment plan is developed based on the collaborative efforts of both therapist and client, and EMDR processing begins. 

Because EMDR is easier to understand by example, let's look at a simple example of how A-F EMDR can be helpful in addressing past and present issues related to anxiety and performance, as well as positively affecting future experience. 

Imagine a client named Alison comes in because she wants to work on reducing her social anxiety. Whenever Alison attends work-related social gatherings, she becomes short of breath, begins sweating, and feels like she's going to pass out. She imagines that others are judging her, and loses confidence in her ability to socialize effectively. Her goal is to reduce her anxiety and to increase her self confidence. 

After the therapist completes a history and develops a treatment plan in collaboration with Alison, she teaches her simple and effective emotional regulation and relaxation skills and helps her develop an internal emotional resource "team" she can use during processing and between sessions (if needed). Once Alison feels calm and prepared, she and her therapist identify and desensitize all past experiences that come to Alison's mind and feel relevant to the current target (the "target" is the focus and/or symptom that the client is looking to resolve; in this case, Alison's social anxiety). 

Once Alison senses a release from the emotional disturbances associated with past experiences, she and her therapist assess and address the current situations that are triggering her dysregulation. Specifically, they target Alison's disturbing image of the work party, her limiting belief "I don't belong," feelings of shame and fear, and any body sensations associated with the image. They use bilateral stimulation--gently tapping Alison's knees, for instance--to work through the image until little to no disturbance remains and she is able to fully believe the thought, "I belong, and I am safe," and she no longer has any negative body sensations associated with the target.

Alison and her therapist then move onto the next phase where future situations are targeted and assessed. During this segment, Alison imagines herself getting ready for a networking party, getting into her car and driving to the venue, walking into the party, enjoying herself and speaking calmly and confidently with her coworkers and supervisors, then leaving and returning home with a sense of peace and calm. Alison may find that all disturbance is now cleared, and that this phase is complete. Or, she may still perceive moderate anxiety and perhaps other negative beliefs. If this is the case, the therapist and Alison continue processing until her anxiety is reduced and she is able to hold a positive belief about herself related to the target. 

The next time Alison is faced with a social work gathering, she has more confidence and far less anxiety, and is able to enjoy herself with her colleagues. She leaves the party feeling calm, happy, and satisfied with her experience. 



The number of sessions varies from person to person and the issue(s) being addressed. Because A-F EMDR is one of the best ways to efficiently and effectively deal with anxiety, trauma, and other common reasons people seek therapy, most clients feel significant relief after their first encounter with EMDR. 



Some people fear that EMDR will erase memories, put them into a hypnotic state, or change their feelings and accurate perceptions about people and reality. Rest assured, it does none of those things. In fact, you will be fully aware, present, and in charge of yourself, your thoughts, your behaviors, and even the pace of the session throughout the EMDR process.


Curious, but wanting more information? 

  • Contact me to schedule a complimentary phone consultation so we can discuss EMDR and determine if it may be a good fit for you and what you want to work on.

  • Get more information about EMDR

  • Learn how to get started

  • Explore: www.emdria.com for general information about EMDR

  • Explore: www.parnellemdr.com for information about Attachment-Focused EMDR