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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative psychotherapeutic approach for treating psychological trauma. It is an evidence-based treatment that helps clients to recover from the effects of trauma through information processing. It has been proven to help people recover from trauma-related symptoms such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and panic disorders. With this form of therapy, clients can reprocess traumatic information and distressing experiences until they are no longer psychologically disruptive. EMDR treatment uses a structured eight-phase approach that gradually reduces a client’s reactivity to traumatic events. 

In a therapy session, a therapist leads a patient in a series of eye movements while the client focuses on a disturbing memory. Lateral eye movements (from left to right) are a form of bilateral stimulation, also known as BLS. Other forms of bilateral stimulation include bilateral sound headphones with alternating tones from one ear to the other and alternating object stimulation using a vibrating or tapping device on a client’s hands. These forms of bilateral stimulation provide an extra stimulus that occupies the mind at a subconscious level, giving space for a client to move through their trauma without reexperiencing it. After a successful EMDR treatment, distressing memories lose intensity, negative beliefs are reformed, and psychological stress response to memory is reduced. 

Eight-Phase Approach to EMDR

#1 History Taking 

The first phase of this treatment involves necessary clinical examinations, including acquiring the clients’ entire history and personal assessment. This phase also includes the therapist and client working together to create target goals for treatment, such as processing past memories, current triggers, and future goals. 

#2 Preparation

In this phase, the therapist introduces the client to EMDR procedures and offers explanations for treatment. Clients may practice eye movement and/or other components to the treatment. The therapist ensures that their client has mindfulness resources that they can access during treatment and leads their client through the safe/calm place exercise. 

#3 Assessment

This phase includes assessing the client, activating the specific memory being targeted during the session through a variety of intentional memory components such as image, cognition, affect, and body sensation. Two measures are used during EMDR sessions to evaluate alterations in emotion and cognition: the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale and the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale. 

#4 Memory Processing: Desensitization

Desensitization motivates a client to focus on the memory at hand while engaging in eye movement techniques or other BLS. The client reports new thoughts while the therapist determines the focus of each set of BLS. This process repeats until the client is no longer distressed by the memory. 

#5 Memory Processing: Installation

Installation aims to strengthen positive cognition. This phase allows the client to match the specific needs of their trauma to more positive patterns of thought. 

#6 Memory Processing: Body Scan

In this phase, clients are asked to observe their physical sensations and experiences while thinking of the memory and positive cognition learned to identify any unresolved distress up to this point. If a client reports any disturbances in thought, procedures return to BLS techniques. 

#7: Memory Processing: Closure

Closure is used to close a session. If the targeted memory was not entirely processed or resolved during the session, the client is given specific techniques that they can use to contain and ensure safety until their next session.

#8: Re-Evaluation

The following session begins with this phase, in which a therapist evaluates the client’s psychological state. The therapist validates if treatment has shown any effect and what memories may have surfaced since the previous session. A new session returns to phase one to identify new target goals and then follows through the phases once again. 

How Is EMDR Different From Other Therapies?

EMDR does not focus primarily on psychotherapy, meaning it does not solely rely on talking through a distressing experience or doing individual work between client sessions. Rather than focusing on changing emotions, thoughts, or behaviors that follow a distressing memory, EMDR circumvents the often long and arduous work of talk therapy and allows the mind to heal directly. 

How Does EMDR Allow the Brain to Heal Naturally?

Our brains have many natural healing processes, as they have a natural way to recover from traumatic experiences and distressful memories. This process happens through the communication between the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala signals the alarm for stressful events, the hippocampus assists in learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex analyzes and controls emotion and behavior. 

Our fight-or-flight response is our body’s natural response to stress. When a distressing event occurs, memory may be overwhelmed and create the sense of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain to process these emotions, allowing normal healing to occur. While the memory remains, the stress response is no longer activated when the memory is recalled.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a holistic form of treatment for psychological trauma. Different from traditional forms of psychotherapy, EMDR relies on the natural healing processes within the brain. Through eye-movement techniques and other bilateral stimulation, clients can revisit traumatic events with psychological safety. EMDR uses an eight-phase approach to treatment. This form of therapy cues regions of the brain to communicate differently when the fight-or-flight stress response is activated. Separate brain regions work together to uncouple the stress response with a specific distressing memory, allowing the client to access the memory in the future without the distressing psychological responses it was once connected with. At West Coast Recovery Centers, we use various traditional and holistic treatment options to serve mental health and substance abuse needs. We use EMDR when clients are looking to process trauma safely, comfortably, and effectively. For more information about the resources we offer, call us today at (760) 492-6509.

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