Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Treatment For Anxiety

Almost 10% of study participants exhibited symptoms of mild anxiety in 2019. To find some sort of relief, anxiety patients try numerous treatment methods with various degrees of success.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatment has become one of the most popular methods in recent years. However, many people don’t know about the treatment or if it will be helpful for them. We will explain EMDR treatment and how effective it is in treating anxiety.

What is EMDR?

EMDR treatment refers to a form of psychotherapy that uses a patient’s controlled eye movements to ease tension due to bilateral stimulation of the brain.

Dr. Francine Shapiro first thought up the technique in 1987 when she noticed that purposeful eye movements reduced stress associated with certain thoughts within herself. She incorporated controlled eye movements into cognitive therapy to develop EMDR therapy as we know it today.

While therapists first started using EMDR in PTSD treatment 25  years ago, it has recently gained popularity in the field over other psychotherapy methods, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

It’s also being used to treat more than PTSD. Therapists have seen success with EMDR when used to treat other anxiety conditions, depression, and chronic pain.

How EMDR Works

Therapists encourage patients with anxiety to think of things that bring up their anxiety. The therapist will ask the patient to follow a finger or a light with their eyes at the same time. Ideally, the eye movements will reduce the anxiety the patient associates with the thoughts. The therapist will ask the patient to stay in their anxiety longer and longer throughout treatment.

8 Phases of EMDR

Therapists follow eight phases when performing EMDR. Learn more about the different phases of EMDR to know what to expect during treatment.

1. Client History and Treatment Planning

First, the therapist will learn more about the patient’s anxiety problems and treatment goals. The therapist will also ask about the patient’s tolerance and reactions toward anxiety triggers.

2. Client Preparation

The therapist will teach the patient about EMDR and how it may help them compared to other potential techniques. The patient will have the opportunity to ask any questions about EMDR.

The therapist will also teach the patient coping techniques to help them throughout the high-anxiety aspects of the process, including replacement thoughts to think about when nervous thoughts get too intense.

3. Assessment

During the assessment stage, the patient will evoke anxiety-inducing thoughts in the patient by asking them to dwell on their triggering thoughts. The therapist will take note of the patient’s reaction as a control. Some patients may struggle to access their anxiety or show physical signs of anxiety, such as an elevated heart rate or tension in the body. These initial reactions will help gauge the effectiveness of the treatment later.

4. Desensitization

The therapist will ask the patient to access their anxiety again and guide them through desensitization techniques, such as following a light or finger with their eyes. The process is repeated in gradual increments until the patient no longer shows signs of anxiety.

5. Installation

When the therapist recognizes signs of anxiety in the patient, they will encourage the patient to focus on a replacement thought, hoping to instill positive memories in place of the negative ones.

6. Body Scan

The therapist will perform a body scan to examine signs of anxiety in the patient, especially when the patient evokes triggering thoughts or memories. During the body scan, the therapist will compare the patient’s physical reactions to their initial reactions during the control to look for progress. The therapist will also ensure that the patient stays safe throughout the process.

7. Closure

After the stress of the experience, the therapist will use coping mechanisms to help the patient reach a point of relaxation.

8. Re-Evaluation

Finally, the patient and the therapist will talk about the experience to determine its effectiveness and how to move forward. During the evaluation, the therapist will not force the patient to go into the details of trauma associated with their anxiety. However, the patient may willingly open up about the topic at their own pace and comfort level. Patients will never have to divulge gruesome details about their thoughts.

What Types of Anxiety Can EMDR Therapy Treat?

Anxiety is a broad term that covers a number of anxiety-related conditions. While EMDR therapy can contribute to most situations regarding anxiety, it will not have the same impact on all anxiety patients. Learn more about what types of anxiety EMDR can treat.


Therapists most commonly recommend EMDR for patients with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that causes anxiety at the thought of past traumatic events. While mostly associated with soldiers coming back from battle, PTSD can impact anyone who experienced serious trauma, including domestic abuse or a car accident.

EMDR allows patients to access traumatic thoughts when they occur without experiencing the intense anxiety they once felt along with the memories.


Phobias are categorized by intense anxiety that occurs when the patient comes into contact with the subject of their phobia.

There are a wide range of phobias, including a phobia of spiders, a phobia of small spaces, and even a phobia of clowns.

EMDR will gradually introduce the patient to their phobia until they no longer feel the need to react strongly when they come into contact with their phobia.

Social Anxiety 

Social anxiety affects people who experience serious anxiety regarding social encounters. Patients may struggle to talk to friends, family members, and strangers to the point where they avoid social events and struggle to maintain relationships.

EMDR will address the insecurity patients feel in social situations so that they can socialize as normal

Panic Attacks

Patients who suffer from panic attacks experience extreme levels of anxiety. The panic attacks can come seemingly out of nowhere.

To use EMDR for panic attacks, the therapist will aim to identify certain triggers and use those triggers in the 8 phase EMDR process.

Panic attacks will occur less often. The patient will also learn new coping mechanisms on how to handle them.


OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) involves obsessive thoughts combined with compulsive actions. The obsessive thoughts generally derive from a place of anxiety. The patient performs compulsive actions to ease the anxiety that comes from the obsessive thoughts.

EMDR will reduce the anxiety associated with obsessive thoughts and reduce the frequency of the thoughts, allowing the patient to forego the compulsions they perform when the thoughts occur.

Additional Uses

EMDR is primarily used to treat anxiety-related treatments. However, research has found that EMDR can be beneficial in the following areas as well:

  • Depression
  • Addiction
  • ADHD
  • Chronic pain
  • Eating disorders

How/Why is EMDR Effective for Treating Anxiety?

EMDR therapy forces patients to combine multiple cognitive processes at once. One cognitive process causes anxiety. The other cognitive process causes tension relief. The calming behavior eventually causes the patient to feel relaxed when performing the cognitive process that generates stress. Eventually, the patient will be able to think about past trauma or a phobia without feeling intense stress, even when they don’t perform purposeful eye movements.

Without the intense anxiety surrounding the thoughts, the patient can access them more directly and get past them.

EMDR is particularly effective since it tackles the issue at the patient’s pace. It also produces long-lasting results, as opposed to medication which won’t show results anymore once the patient stops taking the medication.

How Long Does EMDR Therapy Take?

Progress may take time, and it varies based on the patient.

Therapy starts gradually. Most therapists start patients off in 30-second increments and build from there. The gradual progress means that results will continue slowly until the patient reaches the peak results of the treatment, usually after about 6 – 12 weeks. However, some studies suggest that 90% of PTSD patients experienced relief after only 3 sessions.

How Effective is EMDR For Anxiety?

EMDR therapy is currently considered one of the most effective anxiety treatments available today.

Another popular psychotherapy treatment for anxiety is CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). A study published in 2018 found EMDR more effective than CBT in treating PTSD and general anxiety. However, the study noted that there was no difference when it came to depression.

Some therapists suggest medication, or pharmacotherapy, as a form of anxiety treatment. The most common medications prescribed for anxiety are serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).  However, some patients will receive tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) or benzodiazepines. While both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy show improvement in test groups, anxiety patients get the best results from psychotherapy.


  • Mary-Beth Zolik, M.Ed LMHC

    Mary-Beth is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a M.Ed in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Montevallo. Mary-Beth has been in the field of psychology in a variety of roles for the past 20 years.

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