What to Expect When You Start EMDR Therapy

Beginning any kind of therapy can be a bit scary, especially if it is new to you. When people come to EMDR therapy, they may have expectations or images in their minds of what EMDR looks like. If you’re considering Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, it can be helpful to know what to expect as you begin the process and move through the treatment.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a therapeutic technique developed in the late 1980’s in the United States to help treat individuals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The overall aim of EMDR therapy is to lessen the negative charge and experience of a traumatic or difficult memory, and to replace it with more positive patterns of thinking. This is done through targeting specific memories and thought patterns, utilizing bilateral stimulation, and assessing the experience in the body. 

Beginning EMDR Therapy

At the beginning of your EMDR treatment, you will not jump right into the practice of bilateral stimulation. Instead, you will begin by working with your therapist to assess the underlying issues and build a safe and comfortable space to process the trauma. EMDR therapy starts with history collection and preparation, which helps the therapist assess what the client is dealing with emotionally and the client to build a safe container for the therapy. These first sessions are outlined in the 8 Stages of EMDR.

The 8 Phases of EMDR

Although bilateral stimulation is often imagined as the only part of EMDR therapy, there are actually eight phases or stages of EMDR. These phases include:

  1. History taking – Understanding your past, difficulties, traumas, and experiences that bring you to EMDR therapy
  2. Preparation – Finding a window of resilience and building grounding techniques to keep you safe and comfortable during the upcoming phases
  3. Assessment – Investigating memories and traumas to create specific targets and a treatment plan of what we are going to process
  4. Desensitization – Utilizing bilateral stimulation to lessen the discomfort surrounding the memory, emotion, or trauma
  5. Installation – Again using bilateral stimulation to install more positive thought patterns and cognition around the events and memories
  6. Body scan – Scanning the body to look for residual trauma, discomfort, or difficulties
  7. Closure – Wrapping up the session so you can move into daily life without being overly activated or triggered
  8. Reevaluation – Going over your current experience at the beginning of a session to see if anything has changed

This is obviously an incredibly simple breakdown of the 8 stages of EMDR. If you want to learn more about the phases, you can do so here

What is Bilateral Stimulation?

Many people new to EMDR have questions about bilateral stimulation. During your first few EMDR sessions, you can expect to prepare but not actually engage in bilateral stimulation. Bilateral stimulation is a process in which the left and right hemispheres of your brain are stimulated in an alternating manner. That is, the therapist will utilize tools to stimulate the left side of your brain, then your right, then your left, and so on. Much like a game of tennis, your brain will be working back and forth from one side to the other.

Bilateral stimulation is often done with eye movement, as orginally designed by Dr. Francine Shapiro. This may be done by following a therapist’s finger back and forth or using a light bar or program on the computer than moves back and forth. Some therapists also utilize what is known as tapping, and is simply tapping hands or feet on alternating sides. Furthermore, auditory cues may be used to stimulate one side of the brain or the other.

The purpose of bilateral stimulation is to calm the brain and nervous system, and research supports this. By alternating hemispheres of the brain, the parasympathetic nervous system in engaged. This can help individuals come out of fight-or-flight responses into a more calm and restful state. In addition, the stimulation helps the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate more effectively, building new neural pathways.

Schedule a Free EMDR Consultation

If you’re interested in EMDR with a certified EMDR therapist, please use the form to reach out to me below. I offer free consultations in order to get to know each other and assess if we are a good fit together.


Schedule an EMDR Consultation