Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy that has been growing in popularity. It has been proven to be especially effective in treating trauma. The technique was developed in 1987 by American psychologist Francine Shapiro specifically for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The goal of EMDR is to rewire emotionally charged responses to traumatic events using the patient’s rapid eye movements.
WebMd describes the process as sessions that last up to 90 minutes, during which the therapist moves their fingers in front of your face, asking you to follow with your eyes. Simultaneously, you’ll be asked to recall a disturbing event, including the emotional and physical sensations associated with it. Then, the therapist will gradually begin guiding you into better thoughts. The goal is to eventually lessen the negative effect of traumatic memories.
Traumatic experiences are stored physically in our brains, causing negative emotions and actions. EMDR efficiently and effectively address such responses.
According to The EDMR Humanitarian Assistance Programs , the approach is a “treatment which comprehensively identifies and addresses experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural resilience or coping capacity and has thereby generated traumatic symptoms and/or harmful coping strategies. Through EMDR therapy, patients are able to reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive.”
Francine Shapiro discovered that recalling traumatic experiences while engaging in lateral eye movements (or other left-right bilateral stimulations such as tapping) leads patients to a peaceful resolution of associated behavioral and emotional issues.
The American Psychological Association compares EDMR with other approaches stating that “unlike other treatments that focus on directly altering the emotions, thoughts, and responses resulting from traumatic experiences, EMDR therapy focuses directly on the memory and is intended to change the way that the memory is stored in the brain, thus reducing and eliminating the problematic symptoms.”
EMDR is a structured eight-phase approach:
Phase 1: History Taking
The therapist conducts a full assessment and works with the client to target treatment goals regarding past memories, triggers, and future goals.
Phase 2: Preparing the Client
In this stage the therapist explains the process to the client and introduces the procedures, having the client practice the eye moments and/ or bilateral stimulation tapping. The therapist also introduces the client to the safe/calm place exercise for affect management.
Phase 3: Assessing the Target Memory
During this stage, the target memory is activated by assessing components of the memory including image, cognition and body sensation. Two measures, the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUDS) scale and the Validity of Cognition (VOC) scale, are used to assess change in emotion and cognition.
Phase 4-7: Processing Memory
Stages 4-7 involve desensitization, installation, body scan, and closure. During desensitization, the client focuses on the target memory while engaging in the eye movements and reports new thoughts that have emerged. The process continues until target memory is no longer distressing. In the installation stage, the positive cognition is strengthened.
During the body scan phase, the client observes their physiological responses while thinking of the target memory and the positive cognition, trying to identify any left-over somatic distress. The therapist ends the session with closure, giving the client specific instructions and techniques to use until the next session, in case the target memory was not fully processed.
Phase 8: Evaluating Treatment Results
The last phase involves the reevaluation of the current psychological state and whether treatment effects have maintained.
To learn more about EMDR, visit www.emdr.com