EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, is an innovative, research-supported approach to psychotherapy for resolving disturbing and traumatic experiences, whether they occurred recently or decades ago. Survivors of natural disaster, combat, abuse, assault, accidents, chronic illness and other incidents of traumatic stress have all benefited from the skillful use of EMDR.
Many people have also found EMDR effective as a mind/body approach to treat a broad range of other emotional and physical conditions such as depression, anxiety, phobias and repetitive behaviors. Others have used EMDR to enhance internal resources like self-confidence and determination, or to achieve peak performance in their professional or athletic endeavors.
WHAT IS EMDR?
Many types of therapy seek to resolve old trauma but EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information by accessing what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. In the late 1980s, Francine Shapiro, PhD, observed that eye movements could reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts under certain conditions. She initiated the scientific study of this effect, and in 1989 the Journal of Traumatic Stress first reported the success of EMDR in treating survivors of trauma. Since that time, therapists and researchers all over the world have contributed to its development and evolution.
Today, EMDR is a set of standardized protocols incorporating elements of many different treatment approaches. The standard EMDR protocol is an eight-phase treatment to address therapeutic goals by targeting past memories, current triggers, and future responses. Both bi-lateral stimulation and eye movement protocals are effective in achieving positive results.
HOW DOES EMDR WORK?
There is no simple answer to how any particular psychotherapy works at the neurobiological or brain level. We do know, however, that when we are very upset, it overwhelms our usual ability to cope so that the brain does not process information as it normally does. Instead, the disturbing event—and our unique stress response to it—is stored in a network of associated memories and experiences.
The event becomes “frozen in time” because the brain has not been able to process the associated images, sounds, scents, feelings, and body sensations. When the memory network is triggered, all or part of the traumatic reaction can occur again and again, often with the same degree of intensity. Over time this kind of traumatic stress can have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way we perceive the world and how we relate to other people. This type of stress can also take its toll on our body’s ability to maintain physical health. Headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, pain, fatigue, lowered immunity, and other health issues often accompany unresolved trauma and loss.
In EMDR sessions, the eye movements support more adaptive processing in the memory network so that we no longer “relive” the event when we bring it to mind. We still remember what happened, but it disturbs us less in the present and we stay more connected to our inner strengths and resources.