10 EMDR Therapy Activities & Exercises to do with your Clients in Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), also known as EMDR, was developed by Francine Shapiro to aid individuals grappling with traumatic memories. Over time, EMDR has proven effective in assisting individuals with various mental health concerns. Explore the following 10 EMDR Therapy activities and exercises that can be incorporated into your sessions with clients.

When it comes to addressing mental health concerns, seeking help can feel overwhelming for many individuals. Those who experience significant impairment due to their mental health concerns often desire a timely and efficient approach to counseling. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, or EMDR, can serve as an effective tool to enhance the quality of life for clients within a reasonable timeframe.

EMDR is specifically designed to enable counselors to access and process traumatic memories or events, allowing them to collaborate with clients in finding new resolutions (EMDR, n.d.). This therapeutic approach aims to reduce negative symptoms such as psychological arousal and distress, while also helping to reframe core beliefs (EMDR, n.d.). Ultimately, EMDR has the potential to positively impact the quality of life for clients.

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EMDR 8 Step Approach

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy follows an eight-phase approach. The eight phases are outlined as the following, by the EMDR Institute, Inc.:

Step 1: Information Gathering

Initially, it is important to focus on information gathering, which should include the client’s history and relevant experiences. At this time, the client’s treatment plan will be developed during this phase.

Step 2: Preparing to Cope with Emotional Distress

The Clinician then begins to focus on preparing the client to cope with the emotional distress that the Client will experience in later phases.

Steps 3 – 6: Identify and Process Painful Events

3-6.  The target memory or event is identified and processed using EDMR procedures. During this phase, the client will work to identify a vivid visual of the event, any negative beliefs they have of themselves, and identify related emotions and body sensations. Clients are also asked to identify positive self-beliefs they have. The Clinician will guide and support the client through these phases.

Step 7: Logging Experiences

The Client is asked to keep track of their experience for one week in a written log. This log is designed to show the client’s use of what they have learned in session, including self-calming activities.

Step 8: Review Experience

The final phase examines the Client’s experience with EMDR therapy. This can include exploring what they have achieved and identifying future goals.

Mental Health Concerns That Can Benefit from EMDR Exercises

Research has demonstrated the efficacy of EMDR in reducing symptoms related to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, and certain phobias (Cahill, S.P., Carrigan, M.H., & Frueh, B.C., 1999).

According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., an impressive 84-90% of individuals who experienced a single traumatic event reported a significant reduction in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms after just three 1.5-hour EMDR sessions. Encouraging outcomes have also been observed in individuals with multiple traumas and combat veterans, with positive effects seen in as few as 12 EMDR sessions (EMDR, n.d.). These findings provide reassurance to clients who may have concerns about the duration of EMDR therapy.

It is worth noting that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy has gained support from esteemed organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Why EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized and evidence-based psychotherapy approach primarily used to treat individuals who have experienced trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and distressing life events. Here are several compelling reasons why EMDR may be chosen as a preferred treatment option:

  1. Highly Effective for Trauma: EMDR is particularly effective for individuals who have experienced trauma and trauma-related symptoms. Research has shown its efficacy in reducing the distress associated with traumatic memories and PTSD.
  2. Evidence-Based: EMDR is a well-researched and evidence-based therapy, with numerous studies supporting its effectiveness in addressing trauma and related mental health issues.
  3. Targeted Trauma Processing: EMDR focuses on processing and resolving distressing memories and the associated negative beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations. This can lead to a significant reduction in trauma-related symptoms.
  4. Holistic Approach: EMDR recognizes the mind-body connection and takes a holistic approach to therapy by addressing the emotional, cognitive, and physiological aspects of trauma.
  5. Rapid Results: EMDR is often praised for its efficiency in producing noticeable results in a relatively short period. Some individuals experience relief from trauma-related symptoms sooner than with other therapies.
  6. Less Need for Verbal Disclosure: EMDR allows individuals to process traumatic memories with less emphasis on verbal disclosure. This can be particularly beneficial for those who find it difficult to talk about their trauma.
  7. Adaptability: While EMDR was initially developed for trauma treatment, it has been adapted to address a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, and phobias.
  8. Empowerment: EMDR empowers individuals by helping them reprocess traumatic memories and develop more adaptive beliefs and emotions related to those memories.
  9. Self-Soothing Techniques: EMDR incorporates self-soothing techniques, such as bilateral stimulation (often achieved through eye movements, taps, or sounds), which can help individuals regulate their emotional responses.
  10. Reduced Risk of Relapse: EMDR aims to resolve the root causes of trauma-related symptoms, which can reduce the risk of relapse or the return of distressing symptoms.
  11. Customized Treatment: EMDR can be tailored to address the unique needs and experiences of each client, ensuring that treatment is individualized and comprehensive.
  12. Long-Term Benefits: Research suggests that the benefits of EMDR can be sustained over the long term, with many individuals experiencing lasting improvements in their mental well-being.

While EMDR is highly effective for trauma treatment, it’s essential to consider an individual’s unique needs and preferences when selecting a therapy approach. EMDR may be particularly well-suited for those who have experienced trauma and are seeking a structured and evidence-based therapy to alleviate distressing symptoms and improve their overall quality of life. Keep reading to learn 10 EMDR activities and exercises you can do with your clients.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Activities

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing exercises can be used to enhance the client’s experience in session.  EMDR exercises can reinforce information discussed in the session, and help Clients utilize the skills they learn in their sessions. Here is an example list of EMDR activities that can be used during EMDR sessions:

  1. Teaching your client about the Subjective Unit of Disturbance, or SUD, can help clients rate the amount of distress they experience regarding challenging memories. Providing clients with a SUD worksheet, like the one available at TherapyPatron.com, can help them track their level of distress over time. Clients can use this worksheet to track their experience outside of the session and use it as a tool to reflect on their progress. Tracking their SUD can also provide them with an opportunity to reflect on the progress they have made in therapy.
  2. Clients who find themselves struggling to manage their distressing symptoms can benefit from using an EMDR Container Worksheet. The Container exercise can help Clients visualize a strong container that can carry their distressing feelings. The container should allow for the client to take out a single concern at a time, and they would have control regarding how much of a concern they take out at a time. During this exercise, clients are asked to describe the jar and explore how they would feel if they could put some of their concerns in their container.  TherapyPatron.com offers an EMDR Container Worksheet that can serve as a template for an in-session EMDR activity.
  3. Introduce your client to grounding skills. Grounding skills can be used to keep our minds in the present moment, rather than being wrapped up in the past or the future. You can discuss the use of our five senses in grounding skills, and encourage them to practice various grounding skills that they can utilize outside of sessions in moments of distress.
  4. Introduce your client to the concept of the Window of Tolerance. Understanding physical symptoms associated with hyperarousal, optimal arousal, and hypoarousal can help your client recognize when they fall into a hyperarousal or hypoarousal state so that they can use skills to work towards feeling calm and safe within the optimal arousal state. TherapyPatron.com offers a Window of Tolerance Worksheet that can be used to track their experience outside of therapy sessions.
  5. Clients will likely experience distress outside of the session. An EMDR TICES worksheet can help clients track the triggers, images, cognitions, emotions, and sensations they experience when they feel distressed. Encourage your client to notice the trigger, and take a snapshot of it that they can record on the worksheet and bring to the session. Once clients have completed the worksheet, they can put it in a safe place until their session when they can revisit the worksheet in session.
  6. The Challenging Cognitions Worksheet offered by TherapyPatron.com can help clients develop positive cognitions to replace negative cognitions. Experiencing negative cognitions is a common experience after experiencing a challenging or negative event.  Clients can use the worksheet to track negative thoughts that they were able to challenge and replace outside of therapy sessions, which can help them see their progress.
  7. Introduce your client to the practice of deep breathing. Explain the process of breathing in through their nose and expanding their diaphragm rather than their chest. Some may benefit from visually seeing a demonstration where the Clinician breathes int through their nose, to their belly, and exhales through their mouth. Encourage your client to take several deep breaths in a row, and explore how they feel after this exercise compared to before the practice. Encourage your client to utilize deep breathing as a self-soothing skill.
  8. A helpful EMDR exercise for sessions would be to practice the eye movements that the client will be using during their EMDR Therapy sessions. This can help your client feel confident in their ability to engage in their therapy sessions and provide the Clinician with an opportunity to address any concerns that the client may have.
  9. Another relaxation technique that clients can benefit from is using a Safe Place or a Calm Place. This can include thinking of a place that makes them feel calm and safe, how they feel when they think about this place, and using their senses within their safe place. They can then identify a word that represents their safe place for them so that when they think of that word, they can think of the positive associations they have with their safe place. TherapyPatron.com EDMR Safe Place Worksheet can be completed in a session and kept by the client to serve as a reminder of their safe place.
  10. Introduce your client to the Butterfly Hug method to self-soothe. Take time to demonstrate this skill and answer any questions that they may have. Talk your client through the steps of a Butterfly Hug and follow up by asking about how they felt after practicing this skill. Encourage your client to use this self-soothing skill outside of the session, and follow up about their ability to do so.

Final Thoughts on EMDR Therapy Activities and Exercises for your Clients

We appreciate you taking the time to explore this resource on EMDR Therapy Activities and Exercises for your clients. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy serves as an invaluable tool for clinicians working with individuals facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other mental health concerns. Extensive research supports the effectiveness of EMDR in assisting diverse populations significantly impacted by their mental health challenges. Notably, EMDR can offer relief to clients more rapidly compared to other forms of psychotherapy, such as talk therapy.

Clinicians who engage with clients struggling with traumatic memories can greatly benefit from further exploring the applications of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy. Enhancing your knowledge in this area can be achieved through specialized training sessions, courses, or continuing education opportunities. If you’re seeking to expand your understanding of EMDR, your supervisor can be an invaluable resource to guide you on this journey.

TherapyPatron.com helps mental health professionals better serve their clients. Our (editable, fillable, printable PDF) therapy worksheets can help you streamline your practice, effectively deliver different types of therapy, and support your clients be the best version of themselves.

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Resources:

  • Cahill, S. P., Carrigan, M. H., & Frueh, B. C. (1999). Does EMDR work? And if so, why?: a critical review of controlled outcome and dismantling research. Journal of anxiety disorders, 13(1-2), 5–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0887-6185(98)00039-5
  • EMDR Institute, Inc. (n.d.). What is EMDR? EMDR. Retrieved March 2, 2023, from https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/
Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC
Author: Kayla VanGuilder, MA, LCMHC

Kayla is a Mental Health Counselor who earned her degree from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. She has provided psychotherapy in a residential treatment program and an outpatient addiction treatment facility in New York as well as an inpatient addiction rehab in Ontario, Canada. She has experience working with individuals living with a variety of mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and trauma.

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