What is EMDR?
The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body
does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep,
particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Francine
Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
(EMDR) in 1987, utilizing this natural process in order to
successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then,
EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental
What happens when you are traumatized?
Most of the time, your body routinely manages new information and
experiences without you being aware of it. However, when
something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatized by an
overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly
subjected to distress (e.g. childhood neglect), your natural coping
mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in
disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being
"unprocessed". Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored
in the limbic system of your brain in a "raw" and emotional form,
rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains
traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated
with emotions and physical sensations, which are disconnected from
the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories. The
limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered
when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you
have been through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the
painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are
continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present
and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited.
EMDR helps create the connections between your brain’s memory
networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a
very natural way.
What is an EMDR session like?
EMDR utilizes the natural healing ability of your body. After a
thorough assessment and development of a treatment plan, you will
be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory.
Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated
simply by asking you to watch the therapist's finger moving
backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar
of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements
will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to
report back on the experiences you have had during each of these
sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include
changes in thoughts, images and feelings.
With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in
such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a
neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories
may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can
lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your
What can EMDR be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress
Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:
anxiety and panic attacks grief and loss
depression, PTSD addictions
anger pain, including phantom limb pain
phobias performance anxiety
sleep problems feelings of worthlessness/low self-
Before and after EMDR brain scans.
Left photo shows woman with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Right photo shows same woman after four ninety minute EMDR
The brightened areas indicate over-activity in the brain. Photo by Dr.
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past
traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not,
however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any
disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively
short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and
willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts that
sometimes occur during sessions.
How long does treatment take?
EMDR can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer
psychotherapy treatment plan. EMDR can be easily integrated with
other approaches in which your therapist might be trained, such as
Psychodynamic psychotherapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or
Cognitive Behavior Therapy. For best effects, EMDR sessions during
the actual reprocessing phases of treatment usually last from 60 to 90
minutes. Positive effects have been seen after one session of EMDR.
Will I will remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and
wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the
process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will
support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as
possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that
happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to
arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience
EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.
What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?
EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully
helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of
EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now
over nineteen controlled studies into EMDR, making it the most
thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, and
The American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological
Association, Department of Defense, Veteran’s Administration,
insurance companies, and the International Society for Traumatic
Stress Studies recognize EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD.
For further information about EMDR, point your Internet browser to
www.emdria.org or www.emdr.com .
Adapted from information at www.getselfhelp.co.uk and www.thetraumacentre.com