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What Is EMDR Therapy?

What Is EMDR Therapy?
Lori Kansteiner - EMDR Therapy Agoura Hills

Ah, therapy. We live for a good therapy session — whether it’s a vent session to our best friend, an hour long phone call with our mom, or a good old fashion pouring of the heart to our therapist. But the thing is, therapy is more than just getting something off our chests. And that’s because the human brain is incredibly complex (like, why does it remember that one jingle from that gum commercial in 1989?) and its registry runs deep. Which is why we turn to traditional talk therapy. But these days, we’re also looking into a new therapy technique — EMDR. And it seems like we’re not the only ones (we’re looking at you, Prince Harry). So while we can’t deny the benefits of a traditional therapy session, EMDR therapy has us intrigued. So we did some digging —- and we think you’ll be just as interested as we are.

Here’s what you need to know about it.

What is EMDR?

EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a type of psychotherapy that uses sensory input to help people desensitize and reprocess traumatic events so they’re no longer triggering. When we are triggered or upset by something, our brains can’t always process the event, keeping it stuck or frozen in our memory — making the event as painful as when the person initially experienced it. EMDR therapy works to reverse this. In fact, EMDR therapy was developed in the 1980s by a psychologist named Francine Shapiro specifically for those experiencing PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

So what makes EMDR so special — or, dare we say, even better than other forms of therapy? EMDR focuses on the memory of the event and how it’s stored in the brain, unlike other talk therapies which place emphasis on addressing the thoughts or emotions surrounding a traumatic event.

How does it work?

If you’re anything like us, you’re dying to know how this works — so we can finally figure out why we keep dating the same man in a different body over and over again (is that just our childhood trauma?). So here’s how it works: To help move a traumatic memory into processing, EMDR-specialized therapists guide patients through a series of stimuli to help activate both sides of the brain. These stimuli (called bilateral sensory input) can be anything from side to side eye movements, left-right auditory, or left-right hand tapping, and allow both sides of the brain to talk to each other while the patient talks about the traumatic event in a safe space. The idea here is to unlock the emotions and bodily sensations around the event, while simultaneously guiding the brain through its own processes to heal. The goal is to move the memory from short-term memory to long-term memory — which makes us marvel at the amazing abilities of our brain (while taking note that there is a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to our never-ending self-sabotage habits).

Though the EDMR stimuli can vary (it depends on your therapist and preference), sessions typically start out with a person thinking about an upsetting memory and the beliefs, emotions, or sensations associated with it — whether positive or negative. While this is happening, the person focuses on the stimuli creating the bilateral movement, whether it’s the therapist moving two fingers back and forth or using hand tapping on either side of the body. After every set of stimuli, the person is asked how they feel. (If we’re getting rid of childhood trauma, the answer is great, Doc. We feel great.) If they still feel negative emotions, the stimuli is repeated until the emotions and sensations are gone — which means the trauma has been processed.

But the therapy isn’t done yet. From there, the therapist works with you to begin healing. That might look like creating and instilling new, positive beliefs and emotions around the event. Once those are set, the therapist may use bilateral movement again until you feel neutral to positive emotions.

In short? EMDR essentially reorders our memories in the brain, so we can feel less upset or triggered when remembering the event or situation. We’ll still remember what happened, but it will be less painful or upsetting. Like the small scar you got in 2nd grade, you might remember how you got the scar — but it no longer hurts.

But does it work?

For those looking for relief from trauma, the million dollar question is, “Will this help me? Does this work?” According to the EMDR Institute, some studies show that 84%-90% of single trauma victims were able to process their trauma and no longer experience it — after just three 90-minute sessions. And if that wasn’t enough, several other studies found that EMDR therapy was more effective than trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. So while some still may be skeptical, this new-ish therapy does seem pretty promising. And if there’s anything out there that’s going to address why we get defensive whenever someone even remotely suggests we’re not perfect — well, sign us up.

Whether we’ve had a significant traumatic event happen or a smaller scale trigger (even emotionally unavailable parents can qualify as a small trauma), EMDR might be something to look into. And since we’re pretty sure we have enough baggage to fill a warehouse, we’ll be running toward EMDR. But the important thing to remember is that no matter what kind, trauma does not need to be a permanent part of us. There are tools to help, and ways for all of us to heal.