What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is an eight-step psychotherapy method, originally created in the 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro, to treat trauma. Since then it has expanded to helped millions of people of various ages overcome many forms of psychological distress.
How Does EMDR Work?
EMDR therapy is based on the theory that many symptoms and psychological issues are the result of traumatic experiences or disturbing life events. Traumatic experiences can impair an individual’s ability to process and integrate the disturbing experiences, which may result in the presentation of several symptoms from an overactive fight, flight or freeze response.
According to EMDRIA, EMDR treatment involves activating components of the traumatic memory and pairing them with an alternating bilateral stimulus, which appears to facilitate emotional processing. In other words, an individual is asked to recall a traumatic experience, and then the therapist leads the client through an eight-step process to help their brain and body reprocess the traumatic experience. The therapeutic process involves sensory input such as alternating eye movements or body tapping, which speeds up the processing so the brain and body can release the traumatic memories more quickly.
EMDR results in a reduction of symptoms and distress related to traumatic memories, higher self-esteem, relief from distressing body sensations, and resolution of triggers (EMDRIA).
Research to Support EMDR
The World Health Organization, American Psychiatric Association, and many controlled studies have found EMDR to be a leading treatment of PTSD. Research studies have also reported successful treatment outcomes with EMDR for treating a number of psychological struggles, including trauma and abuse, panic, grief, phobias, eating disorders, somatic issues, and personality difficulties.
In my own personal clinical practice, I have found that the research is accurate and EMDR has been successful in reducing symptoms for clients struggling with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and personality disorders. It has been the most powerful treatment I have found to date.
Three powerful EMDR techniques include:
- Grounding techniques: Before processing traumatic memories, an EMDR therapist will assure that the client has the ability to ground themselves and shift states to regain emotional regulation. An example of a grounding technique taught during EMDR therapy is a safe place meditation, involving deep breathing and visualization of a place in which the client feels safe and calm.
- Bilateral Stimulation: Bilateral stimulation is the sensory component of EMDR therapy that facilitates the processing of memory. This stimulation can be auditory, visual, or tactile and occurs in a left-right rhythmic pattern. This process decreases physiological arousal relaxing the nervous system response, increases attentional flexibility allowing for the brain to release its tight grip on old memories, and creates a healthy distance to an old traumatic memory by allowing the hippocampus to put it in its proper place in time.
- Body Scan: A body scan is a process of scanning the body for any uncomfortable sensations. As van der Kolk explains in his book, The Body Keeps The Score, our body is the blueprint of our lives, storing all of our past experiences. The body scan element of EMDR allows one to get familiar with their body sensations and learn how to release the old, stored sensations.
Helpful EMDR Resources
Here are suggestions for my top three resources related to EMDR:
- The EMDR Institute and EMDR International Association offer EMDR trainings and workshops, research studies, and a directory of EMDR clinicians near you.
- The EMDR Journey Game is a therapeutic tool I created for clinicians to use with their children and adolescent clients while treating their trauma. It makes the EMDR process more accessible for younger clients.
- Ana Gomez is a leading expert on using EMDR with children. Her site provides a number of user-friendly products to facilitate the EDMR process with little ones.
Bisson, J. & Andrew, M. (2007). Psychological treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Cochrane Database Syst Rev, Jul;18(3)CD003388. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub3
Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): basic principles, protocols, and procedures. 2nd ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Shapiro, F. (2012). EMDR therapy training manual. Watsonville, CA: EMDR Institute.
Solomon, R. & Shapiro, F. (2008) EMDR and the adaptive information processing model: potential mechanisms of change. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2(4):315 – 325. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1891/1933-3184.108.40.2065.
van der Kolk, B., Spinazzola, J., Blaustein, M.E, et al. (2007). A randomized clinical trial of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), fluoxetine, and pill placebo in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: treatment effects and long-term maintenance. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Jan;68(1):37–46. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4088/JCP.v68n0105.