Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

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.

It has become a powerful and widely-accepted form of therapy for moving into the past disturbing memories, which are the root of so many present-day problems including PTSD, some anxiety, and addictions.

Dr. Francine Shapiro 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as if you were in that situation, or you may hold beliefs about yourself that are associated with that memory but are no longer valid, if they ever were.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.

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. 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: