Although it’s less understood than other therapies, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a scientifically based treatment that helps people manage disturbing memories. Through EMDR it’s possible to de-intensify memories that cause troubling emotions like anger and anxiety and resolve them.
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist. It was initially used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but now is used for many psychological problems, including personality disorders, addictions, anxiety disorders, phobias, complicated grief and disturbing memories. The therapy usually happens in eight phases and includes time to give patients the ability to identify and address painful memories. Disturbing and traumatic memories cause people to have emotional problems and develop negative beliefs about themselves.
What Happens During an EMDR Session?
EMDR is a nontraditional therapy; it does not include talk therapy or medications. Instead the therapy involves a specific set of interactions between the therapist and the patient, which include remembering times that caused the most distress. During EMDR a patient is guided through a series of rapid, rhythmic eye movements or other repetitive moves. The movements are designed to lessen the power of traumatic memories. It is most often used as a treatment for PTSD—a condition that sometimes results when a person goes through a traumatic event or lives through traumatic periods, such as military combat or a physical assault.
During the initial phase of EMDR, a therapist goes over a patient’s history and discusses her readiness for the treatment. Then the therapist works with the patients to determine a positive memory associated with safety that is used if psychological stress occurs while remembering unpleasant memories. Next the therapist and patient determine a single traumatic memory to address; it is remembered by recalling specific images, negative beliefs and body sensations associated with the memory. While the patient recalls the memory, the therapist conducts special exercises in 30-second intervals. The most common exercise is directing the patient in side-to-side eye movements. Hand tapping and auditory tones through headphones also may be used. The process is repeated until the patient no longer feels emotional distress associated with the memory.
While EMDR is unfamiliar to many, the scientific community has embraced the therapy. The American Psychiatric Association, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and the Departments of Defense and of Veterans Affairs all recognize the effectiveness of EMDR and recommend it for people struggling with stressful and troubling memories.
Benefits of EMDR
Many research studies support the effectiveness of EMDR. While there is still debate about the function of eye movements in the healing process, there are clear benefits for patients who go through the treatment. Researchers believe the treatment helps a person view traumatic memories in a new way—a less vivid and troubling way. One theory about the way EMDR works takes into account a person’s normal processing of memories. Every time a person thinks of a past event, the memory changes subtly based on current circumstances or feelings. A part of the memory may be forgotten or new feelings may be stored with the memory. EMDR may work by reducing the substance and intensity of a memory by adding information gained through the rapid eye movements.
Results of EMDR
A Harvard Medical School neuropsychologist believes EMDR works in the same way as REM sleep by making fundamental changes in the brain’s circuitry. The treatment gives a person the ability to process traumatic memories and put them in the general association networks in the brain. Instead of a person being paralyzed by disturbing memories, the memories are integrated with all other memories, allowing a person to make sense of them in terms of her whole life.
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 WebMD. (2015). EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2015 from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/emdr-what-is-it.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. (2014). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015 from http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/01_landing.aspx.
 Rodriguez, Toni. (2012). Can Eye Movements Treat Trauma. Scientific American. Retrieved Nov. 15, 2015 from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-eye-movements-treat-trauma/?page=1.