How EMDR Therapy Works.

by | May 18, 2020 | Anxiety, Articles, Counselling, Depression, EMDR Therapy, Mental Health

In my blog What is EMDR And How It Can Help You, I outlined how this therapy can help with stress, anxiety, depression or other debilitating emotions. Here I explain how EMDR Therapy works.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) is a powerful psychological treatment that has been used effectively for over 20 years in a range of international settings and cultures. It has been used to treat many different types of psychological distress including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, anxiety, addition, disturbing memories and more.

To understand how EMDR works, it helps to know how our brains store memories.

Day-to-day events are stored as they occur in the ‘episodic memory’ part of our brain. Episodic memory includes general details of an event (time, place, people, context) as well as our personal reaction and emotional response to the event. During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, episodic memories are ‘processed’ and moved into the ‘semantic memory’ part of our brain. Semantic memory contains the general, objective details of an event.

Unprocessed Memories

A problem occurs when an extremely emotional event – such as a big or small T trauma event – is not processed during REM sleep but remains ‘stuck’ in the episodic memory. Instead of being stored in the semantic memory as general facts, it remains in the episodic memory. It remains stored with the same emotional and sensory information as the day on which the event took place, even if this was years previously.

When this type of ‘unprocessed’ traumatic memory is triggered in the present, the full emotional content will come alive again. Your brain won’t be able to distinguish between the original context in which the event happened and your current memory of it. Without knowing why, you will experience overwhelming emotions that will influence your thoughts and actions. This will then effect how you interact with others and your environment.


This explains why a returned soldier with PTSD (Post traumatic Stress Disorder) may experience overwhelming emotions when they hear a car backfire or other loud noise that ‘puts them back’ on the battlefield where his life was literally in danger. This happens when the soldier’s battlefield experience was so emotional that the memory remains in his episodic memory. The loud noise triggers the memory that wasn’t correctly processed and the soldier acts as if their story ‘I’m never safe’ were true. He may physically flee, forgetting responsibilities such as the care of a young child. He may become physically and verbally violent as he forces his way in the opposite direction to the noise.

The triggering of an unprocessed traumatic memory also explains why a successful, professional woman never feels satisfied with her work regardless of consistent positive feedback. Whenever it’s time to present her work, she experiences the same extreme emotions as she did in the family home where she was never able to perform to her father’s standards. She behaves as if her story ‘I’m a failure’ were true.

How EMDR Therapy Works

In the simplest of terms, EMDR enables a traumatic memory to be ‘reprocessed’ and stored appropriately in semantic memory. To do this, EMDR replicates REM sleep while you are awake.

Two things happen when a disturbing, traumatic memory is reprocessed during EMDR. First, there is no more disturbance for the memory. That is, you can recall the event, but it no longer has overwhelming emotional content. Second, the ‘story’ that goes with the memory will be different, more positive and no longer able to control you. For example, the story ‘I’m never safe’ may change to ‘I can take care of myself’ and the story ‘I’m a failure’ may change to ‘I’m competent’.

The EMDR Process

Supporting you throughout the staged EMDR process, your counsellor helps you to bring to mind a disturbing memory and identify the strong emotions and unhelpful ‘story’ you have associated with it.

EMDR replicates brain activity by using bilateral eye movements which are thought to be connected with the biological mechanisms of REM sleep. In face-to-face sessions with your counsellor, you use your eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves from side to side in front of your face. In equally successful online EMDR therapy sessions, you track with your eyes a coloured circle as it moves continuously from left to right on your screen. This is when the memory is reprocessed and no longer causes emotional distress.

When you are no longer influenced by your ‘story’, your experience of life can improve dramatically. My clients describe how, after EMDR, they can work with life’s ups and downs, handle difficult friendships and better manage family situations.

Your next step…

You can read more about the EMDR Therapy I provide here. 

Please read Georgia’s Story here and how EMDR with Honni Hayton Counselling helped her recover from a reationship break up.

You can watch a short animation about how EMDR Therapy Works Here.

If you are interested in finding out more about how EMDR can help you or a family member, please get in touch for a confidential discussion. Call me on 0419 641 805 or email contact@honnihaytoncounselling.com.au

Honni Hayton Counsellor

About Honni Hayton

A qualified, practicing counsellor, Honni Hayton has been helping people live their best life for over 20 years. She specialises in providing women’s counselling services, both in person and online. She also provides relationship counselling to help couples find happiness again.