What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an approach to psychotherapy that has been practiced in the US and around the world for nearly 30 years. Aspects of EMDR are unique:  In particular, the therapist leads a patient in a series of lateral eye movements while the patient simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. During this procedure, patients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often involves new learning about the self and often new learning about a previously disturbing event. For instance an assault victim may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, that the event is really over, and that he can safely go on with life.  Or, a person who has been abandoned by a spouse may come to realize that she is loveable and that she has undiscovered possibilities. EMDR is applicable for a wide range of psychological problems that result from overwhelming life experiences. The left – right eye movements in EMDR are a form of “bilateral stimulation.” Other forms of bilateral stimulation used by EMDR therapists include alternating bilateral sound, using headphones, and alternating tactile simulation using a handheld device that vibrates or taps the patient’s hands.

The therapeutic effects of bilateral stimulation were discovered by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., who grasped their power in psychotherapy.  Dr. Shapiro found—quite by accident—that emotional and behavioral symptoms resulting from disturbing  experiences tend to resolve naturally when a person allows him/ her/their self to recall various elements of a memory while engaging in bilateral stimulation such as lateral eye-movements.  Dr. Shapiro and her associates developed a number of procedures for coordinating this “dual awareness.”  The procedures have been refined and validated through controlled research at several centers around the world.  Precise and careful use of these procedures can lead to a safe processing of memories, such that the negative thoughts and emotions disappear.

More than a set of “techniques,” the EMDR approach provides a model for understanding human potential, including how positive experiences support adaptive living, or psychological health, and how upsetting experiences can sometimes lead to psychological problems that interfere with a person’s ability to meet life challenges. The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model has been constructed from observations of many people in states of psychological health and dysfunction.  The model reveals that health is supported by positive and successful experiences that increasingly prepare a person to handle new challenges.  However, some experiences can be so upsetting that a person’s brain cannot process them normally. Such memories become stuck and then drive psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and problem behaviors.  The AIP model guides a clinician’s use of EMDR procedures so that the person’s own brain can complete the processing of memories.  This results in the reduction of suffering and symptoms and the development of new learnings that support psychological health.

It is very important that EMDR procedures be guided by a fully trained EMDR clinician, who also holds licensure in one of several mental health fields. Patients often require special preparation for EMDR processing.  Premature or other improper use of the procedures can lead to significant distress and worsening of symptoms in some patients.