How long does EMDR take to work?


Many people want to start their EMDR work on their first therapy session. They want to begin EMDR processing as soon as possible, so they can start feeling the effect of EMDR.

This is not a realistic expectation.

Your EMDR therapist will have to assess your readiness to process and teach you some exercises to prepare you for your EMDR work.

What brought you to therapy (therapists call it presenting problem) and your coping abilities are the two main factors that will determine the length of your treatment.

People with histories of continuous childhood abuse or neglect typically take longer to recover from trauma. Alternatively, people who seek therapy for mild anxiety or porn addicts with no significant history of trauma can completely recover in a few sessions.


Although every trauma affects the psyche, complex trauma almost always takes longer to recover from. Every trauma rewires the brain. But when it comes to complex trauma, the brain wires in a way that takes longer to rewire. The brain makes stronger connections in childhood and when trauma, abuse or neglect happen early in life, the brain wires itself around survival. If you were abused or neglected as a child – you are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. But that’s not all – if you suffered childhood trauma, abuse or neglect, your whole nervous system has been wired with an increased perception of risk and a limited ability to feel safe.

If you suffer from complex trauma or early childhood abuse or neglect – you are more likely to spend more time in therapy. You may have to work on learning and practicing some skills. These coping mechanisms will help you feel safe when dealing with intense emotions.

EMDR has a preparation phase. In this phase, your therapist will teach you the skills that will help you become more resilient. You will improve your ability to tolerate intense emotions. You will practice these skills in session and between sessions.

The main purpose of learning these skills is to allow you to re-experience (or reprocess) disturbing events from the past and feel that you are safe in the present.

The logical part of your brain knows that these events happened in the past but your emotional brain (the primitive part of your brain) responds automatically as if these events are still happening. When your emotional brain senses danger, real or imaginary, it sends signals to the rest of the body, preparing you to fight or flee.

The preparation phase will help to balance your nervous system.

So, if your nervous system is already balanced (for example, if you’ve been meditating, exercising and maintaining self-care) – you may be ready to start your EMDR processing sooner.

But if your nervous system responds to past events as if they are still happening – if you can’t tolerate your emotions – you are more likely to spend more time in the preparation phase.


If your brain has been wired around survival, you are more likely to interpret the world in negative terms. Your negative thoughts and emotions were stored deep inside your brain. Trauma or disturbing events caused this information to be stored in your emotional brain in its raw, unprocessed form. What this means is that new information (e.g. “the world is safe”) does not integrate with the old information (e.g. “the world is a dangerous place”).

Logically, you understand that you are not in danger now, but your nervous system keeps sending your body signals as if you are in danger.

The logical part of the brain is not involved with the perception of danger
In order to start your EMDR processing, you will have to FEEL safe. Not all the time. Not in every situation. But when you’re in your therapist’s office, you have to have some sense of safety. If you don’t have this sense of safety – you can’t start processing.

EMDR treatment will rewire your nervous system, so once you’re done you will not feel like you are in danger all the time. You will feel safe. And when that happens – you (and your nervous system) will spend more time in the present.  

Rotem Brayer is a certified EMDR therapist and an EMDR consultant in training practicing in Denver, Colorado. He divides his time between helping refugees to improve their mental health and maintaining a private practice.