How EMDR works

How does EMDR work?

After an initial phase of trying to understand a person’s difficulties and how they developed, it is important to work on developing their resources to improve their capacity to regulate their emotions better and to ground themselves to enhance their sense of safety in the here and now. These preparatory steps help to increase readiness for trauma work.

During the trauma processing phase, a person remembers the traumatic event or aspects of it whilst they are simultaneously moving their eyes from side-to-side or listening to a sound in each ear alternately or feeling a tap on each hand or knee alternately. These side-to-side sensations appear to tax the working memory and this taxing of the working memory seems to unfreeze the “stuck or blocked” processing structure in the mind, enabling the mind to reprocess the information so that it becomes more like an ordinary memory and feels much more liveable with.

What is the theory behind EMDR?

EMDR may work in a similar way to the process which naturally happens with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is when people are in deep sleep and are having a dream and their eyes typically move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes and mulls over the events of the day. Researchers have suggested that EMDR works by concentrating the mind on a task whilst the person is processing a difficult memory, and this gives the brain an overload of work. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less impactful and less troubling. This helps the person to distance themselves from the memory and helps them to reprocess the memory so that it becomes calmer and more manageable.


We do not know the precise mechanism of change in EMDR and you can find more information in a range of resources, for example:

Solomon, R. M., & Shapiro, F. (2008). EMDR and the adaptive information processing model: Potential mechanisms of change. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2(4), 315–325.

Landin-Romero, R., Moreno-Alcazar, A., Pagani, M. & Amann, B.L. (2018) How Does Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy Work? A Systematic Review on Suggested Mechanisms of Action.Front Psychol, 13:9:1395.