Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy Techniques

Table of Contents

This Article Discusses the Following:

  • Definition, history, development, working mechanism, and efficacy of EMDR therapy
  • How to prepare for EMDR therapy
  • Phases of effective EMDR therapy technique
  • Common EMDR therapy techniques
  • How to apply EMDR techniques for specific issues
  • The benefits and potential side effects of EMDR therapy
  • How to measure the effectiveness of EMDR therapy
  • The challenges associated with EMDR therapy and how to overcome them

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a unique type of psychotherapy used to treat different teen mental health disorders, but most importantly, complex teen post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

At Key Healthcare, we offer this type of therapy to help teenagers with depression, childhood trauma, compulsive behaviors, substance abuse disorders, aggressive anxiety, and PTSD symptoms improve and lead healthy, lively, and productive lives. Let’s explore the methods and techniques used in EMDR and how they can be used to treat different conditions.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is a treatment approach that uses rapid rhythmic eye movements and other stimulations to help people safely and controllably process and reprocess traumatic memories. Such movements and stimulations diminish the intensity or power of emotionally charged memories.

History and Development of EMDR Therapy

Dr. Francine Shapiro developed EMDR therapy in the late 1980s. While walking, she noticed her eye movements seemingly diminishing negative emotions from her distressing memories and assumed it had a desensitizing effect.

Upon experimentation, Dr. Shapiro discovered a similar response in others. However, it was clear that eye movements alone could not create exhaustive therapeutic effects; therefore, she added a cognitive component and other treatment elements, giving rise to Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD).

Dr. Francine later changed the treatment approach’s name to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1991 to mirror the insights and cognitive changes brought about by the treatment. The new name also helped her identify a theory she had developed to explain her treatment effects: information processing theory.

Explanation of How EMDR Therapy Works

EMDR is based on the theory that our brains do not properly process traumatic events when they happen, hence occurrences such as flashbacks, nightmares, or a general feeling of the event happening again. Our brains may also find it difficult to tell the difference between the past and the present, explaining why we react as if we are reliving our traumas when something reminds us of them.

This type of therapy uses the adaptive information processing model, which stipulates that reprocessing a disturbing memory can help us move past it. It strives to change how traumatic memories are stored in our brains and helps us process them. We do not, therefore, have to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms such as intense emotional reactions whenever we recall such memories.

During EMDR therapy sessions, clients focus briefly on trauma recovery and perform side-to-side eye movements while thinking of a particular memory to engage both sides of the brain (bilateral stimulations). The therapist can play audio tunes directed at both ears or rhythmic tapping on both hands for those with visual processing problems.

Efficacy of EMDR Therapy

Since the good doctor, Dr. Francine Shapiro developed EMDR in 1989, over 20,000 practitioners have been trained. This type of therapy has no reported significant side effects, making it relatively safe. However, there are ongoing debates on its effectiveness, with some critics claiming that most studies on this therapy approach involve only a few participants. Its proponents have, however, shown its effectiveness in published reports consolidating data from different studies.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense highly recommend EMDR therapy for veterans as one of the PTSD treatment techniques. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also recognizes the effectiveness of EMDR as an effective treatment for chronic or acute PTSD and its usefulness in helping those uncomfortable talking about their traumatic events find help.

Preparation for Effective EMDR Therapy Techniques

Assessing if EMDR is Right for You

Your teen should consult with a therapist to determine whether EMDR is the right treatment option for their anxiety, chronic pain, phobias, childhood trauma, unresolved grief, teen addiction, teen eating disorders, PTSD, or complex trauma. They should also be ready to do the work this treatment approach demands, such as building emotion tolerance.

Finding a Qualified EMDR Therapist

Kindly contact us if you are looking for qualified EMDR therapists for your teenager. Other means of finding a qualified EMDR therapist include:

What to Expect During Your First EMDR Therapy Session

Knowing what to expect during the first session helps you prepare mentally for it. Here is what your teenager should expect:

  • They will connect with their therapist. Advise them to ask as many questions as possible.
  • They will discuss their childhood, a period riddled with many traumatic events for most teenagers. Note that some questions may make them uncomfortable; therefore, they should prepare well. Advise them to be open and honest with the therapist
  • They will most likely start discussing the sources of their distress. They may find themselves talking about a bad memory or sharing negative feelings.
  • They will discuss their mental predispositions. Only then can the therapist create an effective treatment plan for them.

Building a Trusting Relationship with Your EMDR Therapist

Given the sensitive nature of the topics discussed during therapy, it’s understandable for teenagers and anyone else to hesitate to open up to therapists. However, counselors and therapists are trained to offer a safe, non-judgmental, and comfortable experience. Clients do not also cede control, meaning therapy only moves at a comfortable pace. To build a trusting relationship with the therapist, one should understand that it may take time. It is also important to share any hesitation with the therapist since they are interested in making you feel safe.

Duration of EMDR Therapy

The length of EMDR therapy depends on a person’s situation. Teenagers who regularly engage in therapy may experience EMDR effects relatively fast (2-3 sessions). For others, it may take 10-12 sessions.

Phases of Effective EMDR Therapy

There are eight phases of EMDR therapy. Let’s discuss them further:

Phase One: History Taking

History-taking is done within the first two sessions and may continue as the therapy progresses (if new problems are encountered). The therapist will work closely with your teenager to assess their history, identify negative emotions and beliefs, and develop a treatment plan. Your child also gets a chance to discuss the specific problem and the resultant behaviors and symptoms.

Phase Two: Preparation

Preparation is mostly done within the first four sessions, even though it may take longer when dealing with teenagers from a highly traumatized origin. During this phase, the clinician explains the EMDR process, teaches coping skills to help clients rapidly deal with arising emotional disturbances, and establishes a safe space by establishing trust.

Phase Three: Assessment

The third phase involves accessing targets in a standardized and controlled way for effective processing. The therapist works with the client to identify target memories and establish positive cognition (such as I am worthwhile/lovable), which must reflect what’s presently appropriate. Your teenager will also identify target-associated negative emotions (anger, fear) and physical sensations (cold hands, stomach tightness). Additionally, the therapist uses the subjective units of disturbance (SUD) scale to rate distress levels in this phase.

Phase Four: Desensitization

Desensitization focuses on the client’s subjective units of disturbance scale measurements. It helps identify and resolve similar target-associated events that may have taken place. The therapist uses bilateral stimulation to help process memory; monitors stress levels, and identifies and addresses blocks.

Phase Five: Installation

During the fifth phase, the client guides the participant in strengthening the positive cognition set to replace the original negative belief.

Phase Six: Body Scan

After strengthening and installing positive cognition in phase five, the participant will be asked to focus on the original target to identify any remaining body tension emanating from unresolved thoughts. The therapist will help them address the remaining distress if any residual physical sensations are identified.

Phase Seven: Closure

This seventh phase ensures the client leaves the treatment session better than they started. The therapist can use several self-calming techniques to help them regain equilibrium if it’s impossible to process traumatic events in a single session. Related activities include re-establishing a sense of safety, reviewing progress, and planning for the next session. Most therapists also inform clients how to record their experiences using a journal and the techniques they can use to achieve calmness.

Phase Eight: Re-evaluation

The last phase involves assessing the progress made in the past sessions, identifying new therapeutic targets, and continuing to enforce positive emotions and beliefs. It helps determine overtime treatment success.

Common Techniques Used in EMDR Therapy

Resource Development and Installation (RDI)

RDI is one of the most effective resourcing techniques in EMDR therapy. It is mostly applied in complex post-traumatic stress disorder treatment for clients with affect tolerance difficulties. It decreases levels of dissociation and promotes stabilization (teaches clients to build their tolerance window).

The Butterfly Hug

The butterfly hug is a relaxation technique created for EMDR therapy that can be performed anywhere, anytime. It qualifies as a bilateral simulation as it crosses the body’s midline or the centerline of the central nervous system. Note that the other side of the body is activated when an extremity crosses the body’s center. The butterfly hug stimulates the brain’s left hemisphere (responsible for creativity and emotions) and right hemisphere (responsible for patterns, logic, and control) to work together. It has a calming effect and helps participants reduce stress and anxiety.

The Flash Technique

The flash technique is administered during preparation to reduce the intensity of extremely disturbing memories. This rapid and relatively painless approach helps clients being treated for depression, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, and dissociation easily process traumatic memories in the subsequent treatment phases. It is applied to the following clients:

  • Clients who are afraid to dig into their memories
  • Clients worried about accessing their traumatic material
  • Clients vulnerable to dissociation
  • Clients who can easily become emotionally overwhelmed

This EMDR technique helps in unburdening and can reduce exposure-related disturbance. It also makes clients more receptive to reparative perspectives during Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

The SUD Scale Technique

The SUD scale technique, fully known as the Subjective Units of Distress Scale technique, helps therapists understand the intensity of disturbance evoked by emotion or distress. It can be used to evaluate a treatment plan’s success/progress and to identify the different disturbance or distress areas that need additional work.

The Cognitive Interweave Technique

EMDR therapy employs cognitive interweaves in three circumstances, i.e., when processing stops, the therapist is running out of time, or the client is undergoing intense emotional processing. This technique plays a huge role in treating moral injury issues and blocking reliefs.

Effective EMDR Therapy Techniques for Specific Issues


EMDR can be used alongside other interventions to treat complex trauma, PTSD, and childhood trauma.

Treating PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition prevalent in people who have undergone traumatic events or circumstances such as serious accidents, natural disasters, sexual assault, war, bullying, and intimate partner violence.

Common signs of PTSD include vivid flashbacks, avoidance, reactivity and arousal alterations, mood changes, and cognition alteration. To treat PTSD, EMDR focuses on the brain’s memory centers, specific events, triggers, and other neurological associations. It helps patients process upsetting thoughts, feelings, and memories related to a traumatic event, relieving them of PTSD symptoms.

Treating Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is a collective term for the scary, violent, life-threatening, or dangerous events a child experiences growing up. Common signs of childhood trauma include trust issues, avoidance, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, withdrawals, anger, and risky behaviors. EMDR can be used alongside comprehensive individualized treatment plans to help teenagers cope with their difficult pasts. It can help those living with painful trauma fade their past traumatic memories.

Treating Complex Trauma

Complex trauma occurs when people are exposed to several related traumatic experiences to the point that the brain and body get too overwhelmed to process them and return to a relaxed state. Common signs include difficulty controlling emotions, a constant empty/hopeless feeling, feelings of permanent damage or worthlessness, distrust towards the world, and general anger. To treat complex trauma, the EMDR protocol is modified to consider any dysregulation, dissociation, and the treatment time frame. The therapist has to work on several memories to help the client find closure.

Anxiety and Depression

EMDR can be used for depression, panic attacks and anxiety disorders in adolescence.

Treating Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are repeated excessive worry, fear, uneasiness, or dread episodes. People with anxiety disorders may also feel weak, restless, tense, and nervous. Other associated symptoms include trembling, sweating, increased heart rate, and concentration challenges.

To treat anxiety using EMDR, the therapist may include mindfulness-based therapy techniques such as yoga in the first sessions or administer cognitive behavior therapy to counter negative thinking before initiating EMDR. Others may also suggest taking symptom-relief medications and administering EMDR for long-term relief.

Treating Depression

Depression is a common severe mental health disorder that alters how people act, think, and feel. Common causes include stressful events, drugs and alcohol, loneliness, and teen histrionic personality disorder. EMDR can help with teen depression by offering relief from depressive symptoms (e.g., negative thoughts, emptiness, sadness, low self-esteem), helping resolve unprocessed trauma, improving energy and mood, promoting positive self-understanding, and reframing negative beliefs.

Treating Panic Attacks

A panic attack causes sudden and intense anxiety. It may trigger serious physical reactions despite no apparent cause or real danger.

Common signs and symptoms include trembling, sweating, fear of death/loss of control, shortness of breath, throat tightness, nausea, hot flashes, abdominal cramping, chills, chest pain, headache, numbness, and dizziness.

This type of therapy can help minimize the frequency of panic attacks. Lastly, EMDR engages the parasympathetic nervous system, creating a calming effect that helps with panic attack symptoms. Studies have shown decreased anticipatory anxiety and panic complaints in clients who undergo EMDR therapy.

Addiction and Compulsive Behaviors

EMDR therapy can help in treating addiction, eating disorders, and compulsive behaviors.

Treating Addiction

Teen addiction is a chronic disorder that forces people to seek and use drugs despite unpleasant consequences. EMDR can be used to change how people view and respond to triggers that may cause addictive behaviors. A study once discovered that EMDR therapy could be more effective than teen CBT in treating substance use disorders in people with co-occurring disorders.

Treating Eating Disorders

An eating disorder is a severe mental health condition that causes unhealthy eating habits and preoccupation with body aspects (weight, size, or shape). Common examples include binge eating disorders, bulimia nervosa, anorexia nervosa, and restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Most eating disorder cases are caused by traumatic events such as sexual assault, physical abuse, and verbal abuse, which EMDR can help treat. By targeting traumatic events and other distressing memories, EMDR addresses the root causes of this disorder.

Treating Compulsive Behaviors

Compulsive behaviors are performed repetitively and persistently despite having debilitating or harmful consequences. Examples include shopping, eating, hoarding, gambling, skin picking, checking, washing, counting, sex, talking, and compulsive counting. EMDR therapy can help people overcome their intrusive compulsions and thoughts. A therapist can help patients process and reprocess emotions and memories associated with compulsive behavior through bilateral stimulations.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

  • It helps participants work on negative thought patterns by identifying and challenging negative thoughts.
  • It is a brief psychotherapy that yields fast results. There is a high probability that your child will experience positive results within the first three sessions.
  • Participants don’t have to talk in detail about their painful experiences
  • It can improve participants’ self-esteem by helping them process and heal from negative thoughts and distressing memories.
  • Bilateral stimulation, a common technique used in EMDR, activates the brain region associated with comfortable feelings and relaxation, helping with chronic pain relief.

Potential Side Effects of EMDR Therapy Techniques

Here are the three main common side effects of EMDR:

Physical Discomfort

Most people experience physical sensations such as crying and muscle tension during EMDR sessions. The good news is that such physical discomforts do not last long. Your teen can ask for a break if they become too much.

Vivid Dreams/Nightmares

Your child will likely experience new and intense dreams as their brain reprocesses after an EMDR session.

Temporary Increase in Distress

By reprocessing traumatic memories, EMDR can make teenagers feel increasingly vulnerable to emotions. Advise them to rest and engage in self-care practices after the session.

Common Concerns and Misconceptions about EMDR Therapy

  • EMDR is a relatively new therapy and is, therefore, less effective

EMDR has been around for over three decades. Several studies have also proven it is an efficient treatment method for mental health disorders like PTSD.

  • EMDR is a form of hypnosis

Most people falsely believe that EMDR is hypnosis because it uses eye movement. In reality, EMDR uses eye movements as well as bilateral and other rhythmic stimulations to improve the body’s natural information-processing ability.

  • There is a possibility that EMDR can plant false memories in a patient’s brain

EMDR only helps process already-existing memories, not create new ones.

  • EMDR is only used for PTSD

Teen ptsd treatment is the most common EMDR application. However, it is also used for depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Your teen will work with their therapist to determine whether their condition warrants this treatment approach.

  • It’s possible to go crazy from EMDR

Even though EMDR can cause discomfort as one relives past traumatic events, failure to return to normal is highly unlikely. There are no reported incidences of people going crazy from the process, mostly because therapists provide the right coping and grounding skills during preparation.

  • EMDR can be administered on the first day of therapy

EMDR requires extensive history-taking, planning, and preparation before the first session. It’s therefore impossible that it can be administered on the first day.

  • People are forced to talk about their trauma in detail during EMDR

The EMDR therapist will only need a few details to help you reprocess. Your teenager doesn’t, therefore, have to share all details of a painful event or hash every part.

Common Challenges in EMDR Therapy

  • Emotional Overwhelm

Processing stuck memories can be emotionally overwhelming. However, worry not because we have qualified therapists at Key Healthcare to guide and support your teenager every step of the way.

  • Dissociation

Dissociation occurs when a person’s sensory experience, memory, thoughts, and/or sense of identity are disconnected due to a traumatic experience. Although rare, early breaching of EMDR therapy can cause destabilization or increased suicidal ideation.

  • Resistance to Therapy

EMDR may not be effective in cases where the patient’s brain has become proficient in disconnecting from emotions or their nervous system is reactive or unstable due to early stress.

  • Therapist-Related Challenges

Therapists also face challenges such as determining where to start, memories to target, resources needed, and whether the client is ready for processing.

Overcoming the Challenges in EMDR Therapy

To overcome some of the challenges discussed above, It’s important that your teen seeks the services of a trained and experienced EMDR therapist and attempts different EMDR therapy adaptations and techniques.

Measuring the Effectiveness of EMDR Therapy

Research on EMDR Therapy

Being a unique technique, several studies have been done on Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, especially for PTSD treatment. Some of these studies have shown success rates of as high as 77%. Extensive EMDR research has also proven that processing memories of traumatic experiences can help relieve negative physical sensations, beliefs, and emotions.

How to Track Progress

EMDR therapy patients should feel relief after 2-3 sessions. Once the approach desensitizes traumatic memories, they become less emotionally distressing.

Success Story

Here is an EMDR success story written by Chloe Daniels, https://clobare.medium.com/my-first-emdr-experience-8b1bd1a383f1. She claims that EMDR transformed her life and is the most effective therapy she has ever tried. There are several such stories on the internet. Your teenager, too, could have a success story if you contact us at Key Healthcare.


Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy has proven to be an effective treatment approach for trauma-related conditions such as anxiety and PTSD. Contact or schedule a consultation with us to help your teenager safely process and reprocess their traumatic memories using eye movements and other rhythmic bilateral simulations for a less-stressful and productive life.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who Can Benefit from EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy can benefit people with negative thought patterns, poor self-image, PTSD, depression, and anxiety. It is also suitable for people who are uncomfortable talking about their experiences.

Does Insurance Cover EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy can be expensive; therefore, most treatment centers have partnered with different insurance providers to help clients offset treatment bills. Kindly verify your insurance with us to find more information about your coverage.

What is the Success Rate of EMDR Therapy?

Several studies have found that EMDR therapy is effective for several mental health disorders, such as PTSD, with some pointing to a success rate of as high as 77%.

What is the Difference Between EMDR Therapy and Traditional Talk Therapy?

Even though both traditional talk therapy and EMDR help people make sense of their trauma, the latter assists people in reprocessing them healthily. EMDR is faster and more efficient than talk therapy because most people experience positive effects within 2-3 sessions. Additionally, it is cheaper and less time-consuming.

Can EMDR Be Used for Children?

Yes. EMDR therapy can be used for people of all ages, including children and adolescents. Research shows it can be an effective PTSD treatment for children as young as 4-8

Can EMDR Therapy Be Done Online?

Yes. EMDR can be administered physically or online, depending on your teenager’s schedule and where they feel more comfortable. Note that the primary phases and principles remain the same regardless of the approach.

Can EMDR Therapy Be Used for Phobias?

Yes. EMDR therapy can be used to treat phobic conditions with high anxiety levels by targeting the events where people encounter phobic situations or objects.

Can EMDR Therapy Be Used in Conjunction with Medication?

EMDR can be used independently or alongside pharmacological interventions. Regardless of the approach, it still offers a safe and effective way of dealing with specific mental health conditions.

How Many Sessions of EMDR Therapy Are Needed?

Even though some people may benefit after a few sessions, EMDR generally runs for 6-12 sessions, delivered once or twice a week.