What Is EMDR Therapy?

Have you ever seen the 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? The premise of this movie revolves around a company that can erase unwanted memories. We all have terrible experiences that we’d like to forget. Whether it’s as extreme as combat or as commonplace as an embarrassing moment from high school. There’s currently no machine that will erase our memories for us. However, there is a form of therapy that can change the way that you remember these moments. The treatment is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR.

This form of therapy is twenty-five years old but has a high success rate in treating trauma patients. It’s also now proven effective at treating the symptoms of depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, grief and several other mental health issues. EMDR takes your most traumatic memories and desensitizes you from the mental and physical effects. The memory is still there. It just doesn’t bother you anymore. After all, we need to remember these terrible experiences so that we can learn from them and mature. We just don’t want them to keep us up at night or hold us back from trying new things.


One of the first exercises that you learn is the eye and hand movement technique. Your therapist may ask you to follow their moving hand or to tap as you focus on a traumatic memory. Think of it as that iconic image of a hypnotist waving a watch back and forth to put their patient into a trance. Instead, the movements are said to help your brain process the traumatic memories. It extracts the thoughts that are keeping the feelings raw like an open wound and allows them to heal.

In your next session, your therapist may ask you to describe yourself and your negative feelings when you’re in a depressed or anxious state. The goal is to target the memories related to these feelings so that these symptoms disappear.


Next comes visualization exercises. First, you may be asked to envision a box in which to store your negative thoughts. This box is to be used not just in your sessions but any time you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just the act of locking these ideas away can help to calm you down and put things in perspective. It gives you control over your emotions that you wouldn’t have otherwise, to turn ideas into tangible objects that can be moved and locked away, out of sight. That doesn’t mean that they can’t come back, but it does help you to get through those tense moments where feelings and memories overwhelm you.

Your therapist will also ask you to think of your earliest memory when you began to experience the feelings that are causing you distress. Then, in a few sentences, to explain what images, thoughts, or feelings come to mind.

During this explanation, you may be asked to tap on your arms or legs or follow their hand with your eyes. Some therapists use a pulse tool. The pulse tool looks like two computer mouse that you hold in each hand. They’re attached to the box which creates different levels of rhythmic vibrations in your hands while thinking of these memories. It’s not painful or numbing; it’s just a firm sensation that helps with the healing and keeps you from having to multitask with hand or eye movements as you process your memories.

For each memory, you explore every facet of what you remember, from sights to feelings to details you probably haven’t thought of in years. After each observation you make, your therapist will tell you to go on that feeling and then close your eyes for another minute and keep deep diving. Your mind may wander, or you may feel like you have nothing else to say or think about this memory. That’s a good sign, and that’s usually when your therapist will ask you to check in on the memory and rate your level of distress.

Gradually, you begin to dissociate those negative feelings with the memory. The visual still stays intact, but you don’t feel sad or stressed when you remember it. It loses all significance as one of the roots of your negative thoughts. Once you get the memory’s level of distress down to 0, it’s time to move on to the next memory associated with your negative thoughts. The more traumatic the memory, the more time you will need to spend in this visualization session. You may even need multiple therapy sessions for one memory. The goal is to keep visualizing until it no longer affects.


The average client requires six to eight sessions in order to get through the EMDR process. It requires visiting multiple memories and focusing on them until you get to a 0 on the level of distress that they cause you.

EMDR helps people immensely in being able to live with past traumas and not let them define their present state of mind. As some people dwell on the past, both good and bad, it can be a relief to no longer be haunted by the bad memories or to wish that you had done things differently. Instead, they are mere learning tools with no emotional weight. It doesn’t require a drug or a science fiction-like procedure to accomplish. It just takes you, your therapist, and time.

Connect with one of our Therapists in Milwaukee, WI, and Across Wisconsin

If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR or counseling, you can send us a message here or follow these simple steps:

  1. Contact Hillary Counseling to schedule an appointment

  2. Meet with a caring therapist for your first session

  3. Start receiving support from the comfort of your home!

Other Services Offered with Hillary Counseling

Our holistic therapists are here to help you when it comes to your mental health! We offer a variety of mental health services to support individuals and couples based in Milwaukee (or who live in Wisconsin). Sessions are available both in-person at our office in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, as well as virtually for anyone in the state. We offer anxiety treatmentteen therapygriefcounselingonline therapyeating disorderstrauma, EMDR therapy, OCD therapytherapy for college students, women’s health and wellness, and LGBTQ+ therapy.

Article By: Laura Smith