Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by psychologist, Dr. Francine Shapiro, in the late 1980’s as a treatment for post-traumatic stress. She had accidentally stumbled upon the experience of disturbing thoughts disappearing when she moved her eyes rapidly back and forth – and when these thoughts were brought back to mind they had lost their charge. From this seed, and through diligent research and experimentation, Shapiro developed a powerful psychotherapy based on an Adaptive Information Processing model.
Since 1990, there has been more research done on EMDR as a treatment for post-traumatic stress than on any other form of treatment. While it is not yet understood just how EMDR works, there is no doubt of its effectiveness in this area. In more recent years, new applications of EMDR have been developed and there is beginning to be some research done in these areas too. EMDR is now widely accepted around the world.
EMDR for Traumatic Memories
Many of the emotional problems we have can be traced back to disturbing events in the past. These may be significant traumas, such as rape or a car accident. They may also be less dramatic but still have a lasting impact; for example, being ridiculed by a teacher or rejected by a best friend in childhood. Witnessing violence can also be traumatizing. In some cases, the source is chronic, such as on-going childhood abuse. Even though we may understand what the problem is about, we can still be affected by these experiences.
The brain has a way of processing disturbing memories so that you experience the events as being over: “It was a lousy/terrible/horrific thing that happened. So glad it is over.” However, sometimes this process gets stuck and the memory network seems to stay frozen in the brain. It is as though the part of you who experienced that event isn’t really clear that it’s over. You may have flashbacks so you feel you are actually in that situation, you may find yourself triggered by something in the present so you respond as if you were in that situation, or you may hold beliefs about yourself that are associated with that memory but are no longer valid, if they ever were.
EMDR seems to kick-start the natural healing process to move the memory through and it does this at an accelerated rate. In effect, the memory is moved into the past and you experience it as being over.
The EMDR Process with Traumatic Memories
Without going into the AIP model of EMDR and how the therapy is conceptualized, I would like to offer a brief and very simplified description of the process of working with disturbing memories. A history-taking precedes this (and most other) therapeutic work. The therapist needs to make a decision about whether or not EMDR would be helpful for you at this time. Preparation includes an explanation of the process and the teaching of some self-soothing techniques, if necessary.
In the actual EMDR session, the therapist helps you to bring forth the different aspects of the memory as it is at that moment (the image, thought, emotion, and body sensation). Then while you hold together these aspects in your awareness, you begin to move your eyes back and forth following the therapist’s hand (sometimes alternating bilateral tapping or sound is used instead). Your job then is simply to notice whatever happens. It may be body sensations, emotions, thoughts, or other memories may come up. It is like being in a train and watching the scenery go by. After a minute or two, the therapist stops and asks what you noticed. Either that is taken as the next starting point, or the therapist will suggest where to turn your attention to begin again. This is continued until you can bring up the memory with no emotional charge.
The next part of the process is to come to believe what you would prefer to believe about yourself in relation to the memory, even though that happened. This is not to deny the past, but rather to be fully in the present. So a negative irrational belief that was associated with the memory (e.g. ‘I am powerless’) is replaced with a positive realistic belief (e.g. ‘As an adult, I have choices’). This is worked with until it actually feels true. Sometimes if there are numerous memories to be processed with the same negative belief, it may be ‘I am beginning to know that as an adult, I have choices.’ A final check is made by doing a scan through your body to make sure you can bring the memory to mind with the positive belief and have no disturbing emotions or body sensations. This process is followed up, often in the next session, by working with associated events in the present which may be triggers for you, and anticipated future events.
This is a simplified description of the core of EMDR trauma treatment. It really is remarkable to see how readily and quickly the majority of traumatic memories are moved into the past using the standard EMDR protocol. Like other journeys, it may be straightforward or more complex. Complicating factors which may lead to a more complex picture of therapy are a history of chronic trauma or abuse, a history of ongoing emotional abuse, or early separations from the primary caregivers. It is important to recognize that not all of our problems are due to trauma. There is more information about this on the Imaginal Nurturing page
The Theory of EMDR
As with so many effective processes, we do not yet know exactly how EMDR works. The theory behind it is as follows: when a disturbing event occurs, the memory can become “locked” into your nervous system as an isolated network incorporating imagery, emotions, body sensations, and negative beliefs. This network can be triggered when any kind of associated or related experience comes along. This can cause an overreaction in the present situation which may result in you feeling almost as upset or powerless as you did in the original event. The traumatic memory is primarily stored in the right hemisphere where it does not have access to networks in the left hemisphere which contain important thoughts and awareness which could relieve the distress if a connection could be made. An example might be the simple truth that “It is over,” “I survived,” or “I did the best I could.” You might think those thoughts, but it as though you were unable to apply that awareness to the painful memory, and so the distressing feelings and reactions continue to affect you. Eye movements (or other forms of side to side stimulation) seem to unlock the memory network and allow a connection to be made between the networks on either side of the brain. This may be due to the stimulation itself, or perhaps to the simultaneous focus of EMDR on the memory and the eye movements or other stimulation. In any case, your psyche processes the information, restoring balance. The result is that the memory is laid to rest in the past and you are no longer hampered by the effects of the original disturbing event or later incidents which may have been added to the memory of it.
Other Applications of EMDR
The practice of EMDR has been adapted and expanded for other uses beyond trauma work, such as the development of inner strengths and resources, the treatment of addictions and eating disorders, and performance enhancement. My development of Imaginal Nurturing is another such application. In this case, when I associate this with EMDR, I mean that it incorporates bilateral stimulation (‘dual attention stimulation’) and attends to the various aspects of experience (imagistic, cognitive, emotional, and somatic or physical). For more information see the Imaginal Nurturing page.
EMDR is a complex therapy. If you are looking for an EMDR therapist, I recommend that you check that they were trained by an EMDRIA-Approved trainer. You might check out the EMDRIA website or the EMDR Canada website.
For more information (including research) about EMDR, you may want to visit these websites:
EMDRIA, the International EMDR Association: www.emdria.org
EMDR Canada Association: www.emdrcanada.org
The EMDR Institute: www.emdr.com
For user-friendly educational information about EMDR, including amazing brain scans by Dr. Daniel Amen of a client’s brain with PTSD and her brain again after EMDR therapy, look at this site from San Diego, California: www.SanDiegoTraumaTherapy.com