What is EMDR?

EMDR is a type of psychotherapy that was created and developed by Dr Francine Shapiro in 1987.  Dr Shapiro stumbled upon the discovery that certain eye movements help to decrease the intensity of disturbing thoughts. Since that discovery, EMDR has evolved through research and contributions by therapists from all over the world.  Today EMDR is performed through the use of standard protocols that have been developed to to address different mental health issues.

How does EMDR work?

It is important to first note that no one for sure knows how any forms of psychotherapy work at a neurobiological level. But through the use of empirical studies and research methodologies, we do know that psychotherapies produce positive outcomes.
When a person experiences what we refer to a traumatic event, the brain does not process the information as it would a normal experience.  These traumatic experiences get locked in the brain through the five senses and have a lasting negative effect and strong emotional responses can be triggered by certain stimuli. EMDR seems to have an effect on how the brain processes information and works to break that strong emotional connection that a person has to an event.  After successful EMDR, a person would be able to think about and focus on the event without having to relive the sights, sounds, and feelings that were originally produce by the event.

EMDR is thought to be similar to the processing that occurs during REM sleep.  In EMDR this is called bilateral stimulation and helps to access a persons broader memory networks to gain a new perspective on the traumatic event.

Does EMDR really work?

There have been numerous studies that have provided support to the use of EMDR in the treatment of trauma.  These studies have been consistent in demonstrating the resolution and elimination of symptoms of post traumatic stress.  Through these research outcomes, EMDR has gained support from the American Psychiatric Association which determined that EMDR was an effective treatment for trauma.  The Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense have also endorsed EMDR as “strongly recommended” in the treatment trauma.  Other professional organizations that have given support to the use of EMDR in treating trauma include the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the Department of Health of Northern Ireland, and the Department of Health of Israel.

What happens during EMDR?

EMDR is conducted through an eight phase treatment approach which focuses on three different aspects: past, present, and future.  These eight phases include history taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure, and reevaluation.
During EMDR, the therapist uses either eye movements or other forms of Bilateral Stimulation while a client focuses on the disturbing material.  Each person will have a different experience during the EMDR desensitization phase as it is the persons brain that is actively processing the information.  In EMDR there is nothing specific that is “supposed to” happen- whatever happens happens.  Common reactions among clients are that of relief, uncovering aspects of the memory that have been forgotten or overshadowed, and a new or different understanding of the event.