EMDR is a treatment technique that facilitates the reprocessessing of traumatic and/or distressing memories. Scientific research has established EMDR as an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress, phobias, panic attacks, anxiety disorder, stress, traumatic abuse, disturbing memories, complicated grief and addictions. 

Below are two short introductions to the concepts and studies around EMDR to better understand the impact of this treatment modality.

What is EMDR? - Nourished Energy | Grand Rapids, MI 49506

What is EMDR – by Deborah Kennard, MS from Personal Transformation Institute

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. One component of EMDR is a technique called “bilateral stimulation” where a therapist will guide a client through eye movements, tones, or taps.

However, EMDR is an entire integrated therapeutic approach that considers a person’s somatic (physical) and emotional states.

EMDR was founded in 1987 by Francine Shapiro and is currently one of the most researched methods of contemporary psychotherapy. EMDR therapy has been empirically proven to be particularly effective in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as developmental trauma. EMDR relieves the symptoms of trauma by changing the way traumatic memories are stored. Neurobiological imaging research has documented changes in the brain during EMDR sessions (Pagani, M. 2014).

EMDR therapy is based on a model called the Adaptive Information Processing model (AIP). This model posits that psychopathologies are a result of the maladaptive encoding or incomplete processing of traumatic events. A combination of our genetic predisposition and our experiences create memory networks that are stored in our minds and bodies. These memory networks dictate how we experience the world in the present. They are the basis of our beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions. Memory networks can be a source of dysfunction, as well as a healthy resource to draw from.

Most memories are functionally stored in the brain but intense or traumatic events tend to be stored without a coherent sense of time. This incorrect storage can lead to a client to feeling like the past traumatic event is about to happen again at any moment or is currently happening in the present. They overreact to present stimuli with hyperarousal and/ or somatic symptoms because of their dysfunctional memory network.

Specific protocols in EMDR therapy help to access these memory networks in order to move them from a place of emotional activation to a more logical, rational place. EMDR changes the way traumatic memories are stored so that a client’s human system can know and feel that the traumatic event is in the past and they are safe in the present. Through EMDR therapy, the triggers of the present no longer have the same charge. The client can react to what is happening now instead of having an overreaction due to a past event.

EMDR is a present-focused therapy. In EMDR we are more interested in the ways past events manifest in a client’s system in the present moment than we are in gathering historical data. We do gather historical data, but it is mainly to access how that memory was stored. Therefore, we do not ask how the client felt at the time of the event. Rather, we ask how those memories activate emotions in the present.

What is EMDR by Francine Shapiro, PhD

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.  Repeated studies show that by using EMDR therapy people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal.  EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma.  When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound.  If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes.  The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health.  If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering.  Once the block is removed, healing resumes.  Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.

More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR therapy.  Some of the studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions.  Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions. There has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense. Given the worldwide recognition as an effective treatment of trauma, you can easily see how EMDR therapy would be effective in treating the “everyday” memories that are the reason people have low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and all the myriad problems that bring them in for therapy. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy.  Millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment.  Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used during one part of the session.  After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision.  As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level.  For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.”  Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.  The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them.  Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed. As a natural outcome of the EMDR therapeutic process, the clients’ thoughts, feelings and behavior are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution—all without speaking in detail or doing homework used in other therapies.