What the heck is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing)?
“That’s so weird, but it worked”
“That’s crazy, but I feel so much better”
“It’s kind of like magic, I don’t understand why it works, but it works”
These are all comments I have heard from my patients about EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized form of psychotherapy treatment accidentally created in 1989 by Francine Shapiro. She discovered moving her own eyes back and forth, mimicking Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep made her feel better during stressful moments. She began studying, developed a theory around eye movements and designed a whole new form of therapy to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b).
EMDR exploded into the therapy world in 2014 after Bessel van der Kolk published his book, “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”
EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used during one part of the session. After the client and clinician have determined which memory to target first, the therapist asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings. In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that, “I survived it and I am strong.” Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR therapy feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Their wounds have not just closed, they have transformed. As a natural outcome of the EMDR therapeutic process, the clients’ thoughts, feelings and behavior are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution—all without speaking in detail or doing homework used in other therapies.