top of page

How does EMDR work?

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

An estimated 40 million adults in the United States, 18% of the population, suffer with an anxiety disorder. 8.2% of the adult population struggle with a form of depression. (ADAA 2016)  

If you do the math, that’s 26.2%…over 1/4 of the US adult population!  In children, the statistic is 1 in 8. (ADAA 2016) The numbers are staggering.

Prescription medication is usually the first line of defense for treating these disorders. But anxiety and depression are also symptoms of unresolved traumatic experiences.  Medications have their place and have helped a lot of people feel better.  They are proven to improve anxiety and depression by altering hormone and chemical levels, thus improving your mood. But medication does NOT heal trauma.

But is there more we can do?

At the biological level, chemical imbalances lead to depression and anxiety.  For example, serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin are the “big three” neurotransmitters in your body associated with happiness.   At balanced levels, they make you feel happy, energized and motivated.  When unbalanced, you feel a shift in how you feel.  So yes, taking pills can have a positive effect on your moods.

But have you ever thought, why don’t I produce enough happy hormones? Why aren’t my chemicals balanced?  Medication helps alleviate symptoms, but that’s only half of the equation. What about the underlying cause(s) of the symptoms? Not to mention that many individuals cannot or chose not to take prescription medication. That's where trauma therapies, such as EMDR, can help.

Experiences Shape the Brain

As a trauma specialist, I noticed that the driving forces behind an individual’s behavior were limiting beliefs learned during earlier life experiences. Stressful experiences can impact our body’s ability to produce neurotransmitters on a balanced level.  This can result in a myriad of symptoms including anxiety, depression, chronic pain, etc.  This then begs the question: can we rewire our brains and be symptom free?

Scientists originally believed the majority of brain development occurs in our younger years and stops at adulthood.  New research has now discovered the concept of Neuroplasticity.  This means that the brain can constantly grow and change throughout someone’s life, no matter what their age is.  If this is possible, can we rewire our brains and bodies so that chemical levels can be balanced?  

Well, it is possible.  Anxiety, depression, chronic pain, all do not have to be a lifelong struggle if we treat the underlying trauma.

A different Approach

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) is an evidenced based psychotherapy that works by sorting through associated memories that have contributed to the current way one is feeling. Often times, it may be difficult to find memories or to realize that an experience may have had a stronger impact that you thought. In a typical EMDR session, the therapist and client work to make connections between experiences, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. The client then processes this information using bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or tapping, to work through any associated material that causes distress.   EMDR is complete when an individual no longer experiences intense emotional reactivity when thinking about the memory or when present day experiences no longer trigger them. There is a noticeable positive change in overall functioning and behavior.

How does it work?

Want to know what an EMDR session would be like? Let’s look a case example to get a brief overview of what to expect.

Betty has been in a series of tumultuous relationships.  They all have the same theme of Betty giving much more effort into the relationship than her partner. Time and time again, she was let down, cheated on, taken advantage of, and not appreciated.  She kept thinking to herself, “What am I doing wrong? Why does this keep happening?”

She’s been in therapy countless times in the past, but was never able to implement the strategies and insights that she learned. Frustrated and hopeless, she decides to try EMDR.  

Throughout the initial sessions, Betty and her therapist work together and discuss Betty’s own lack of self worth.  She continues to engage in these unhealthy relationships because she does not think she deserves any better.  Her therapist asks if she can recall other times in her life that she believed she was not good enough.  They discuss several different memories from childhood that helped create this way of thinking. Betty then picks a specific memory and identifies the thoughts, feelings, and sensations in her body that that are associated with that memory. Then, using a series of eye movements, Betty makes connections to other thoughts and memories related to this overall negative sense of self.

By working through these memories, Betty is able to also recall happy memories.  These memories and thoughts help disprove her belief that she is not good enough.  If all of these memories happened, then it no longer makes sense to Betty when she thinks she is worthless.  Instead, she says “I know I am good enough and deserve better”. Betty tried to get herself to believe that before, but it never stuck.  This time, she feels it in her gut to be true because she was able to process her earlier life experiences that shaped this negative way of thinking. She is much happier and her behaviors change dramatically.   Betty now has much healthier relationships and no longer puts up with being taken advantage of by others.

What does this have to do with medication?

As I mentioned before, medication helps to adjust the chemical imbalances in your brain, thus making you feel happier.

With EMDR, you are able to go back and work through experiences that have contributed to this imbalance and cause the negative way you are feeling.  After working through a stressful event, your brain actually rewires (based on neuroplasticity) to function differently.  

As a result, chemical and hormone levels can function optimally, leaving you to feel energized, happy and able to take on anything that comes your way. EMDR helps you leave the past in the past so it no longer affects your present day functioning.

About the Author

Dana Carretta-Stein is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and founder of Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling, PLLC, in Scarsdale, NY.   She specializes in clinical psychotherapy to treat individuals with anxiety, behavior and trauma difficulties.

She is a certified EMDR therapist and the is Regional Coorindator for the EMDR Regional Network in Westchester County, NY.


bottom of page