What is EMDR therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful method of psychotherapy that has helped an estimated two million people, world wide of all ages relieve many types of psychological distress.
What is an EMDR session like?
During EMDR, the therapist and the client work together to identify a specific problem as the focus of the treatment session. The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event, what was seen, felt, heard, thought, etc., and what thoughts and beliefs are currently held about that event. The therapist facilitates the directional movement of the eyes or other dual attention stimulation of the brain, while the client focuses on the disturbing material, and the client just notices whatever comes to mind without making any effort to control direction or content. Each person will process information uniquely, based on personal experiences and values. Sets of eye movements are continued until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with positive thoughts and beliefs about one’s self; for example, “I did the best I could.” During EMDR, the client may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session, most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance.
How was it discovered?
In 1987, psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro made a chance personal observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts under certain conditions. Dr. Shapiro studied this effect scientifically and in a subsequent issue of the Journal of Traumatic Stress, she reported success using EMDR to treat victims of trauma. Since then, EMDR has been developed through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world. Today, EMDR is a set of standardised protocols that incorporates elements from many different treatment approaches.
How does it work?
No one knows how any form of psychotherapy works. We do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it normally does. One moment can become ‘frozen in time’, and remembering this moment can feel as bad as going through it the first time because the memory of the images, sounds, smells, and feelings haven’t changed.
These memories can have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way we see ourselves, the world and the people in it. EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that our brain processes information. One possibility is that EMDR unlocks negative memories and emotions stored in the nervous system and helps us reconnect to alternateive neural pathways. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, we no longer relive the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. We still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting.
Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be closer to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.