Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

In the late 1980’s, Francine Shapiro found EMDR. She noticed that when she thought about something that was bothering her, and moved her eyes from side to side, she felt better. The methodology has been built upon throughout the years, but the basic model remains intact.

Life events are stored as memories.  Sometimes, unpleasant memories aren’t fully processed, leading to current symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.  Using bilateral stimulation (such as eye movements that occur naturally in REM sleep), the whole body works together to neutralize the overactive emotional response.  When the whole body comes together in this way, it isn’t necessary to verbally reprocess and rehash your difficult life experiences. The brain does all the work. Once processing is complete, what is left is a more balanced and accurate memory that allows for a positive self-image and reduction in symptoms. 

Although it may seem unusual, it has been proven time and time again to be effective. EMDR is heavily researched and well respected as a powerful treatment modality.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is EMDR?
How does EMDR work?

The fact of the matter is that we’re not quite sure! Someday we’ll have technology to evaluate that! There are a few theories:

  • The eye movement component stimulates the brain in a way that’s similar to REM sleep phase, we are activating a dream state while you are conscious and allowing the brain to process naturally.
  • The combination of bi-lateral stimulation (BLS; eye movements, audio sounds, tapping, buzzers) and recalling a painful memory doesn’t allow the brain to attend to both at the same time. Our body learns to habituate once it recognizes that there is not current danger.
  • Working memory is necessary to both notice the memory and the BLS, it is not capable of holding both simultaneously. The BLS disrupts working memory as well as the vividness and emotionality of the memory being addressed.
How fast does it work?

EMDR processing can be very fast, at times it can take multiple sessions. Because everyone’s situation is a little different, in terms of extent of/type of trauma, availability of coping skills, and current life situation, there is no magic number of sessions. It is the therapist’s responsibility to make sure you are emotionally ready to address difficult, emotional experiences of your past, which also varies from person to person. There is also no way to predict how long it will take to process a memory. Sometimes seemingly benign memories take several sessions to work through, whereas troublesome memories may process in one session.

What does it treat?

EMDR is an effective therapy for many, many diagnoses. It is often only considered as a treatment of trauma; however, this is not true. EMDR is appropriate with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Trauma
  • Obsessive – Compulsive Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Chronic Pain
  • Addictions (drug, alcohol, gambling, pornography, sex, technology)
  • Eating disorders

EMDR is not appropriate for psychosis (such as schizophrenia), Traumatic Brain Injury (will not assist in recovering lost cognitive functioning but can assist by processing the trauma that caused the injury) and physiological disorders such as bipolar (will not regulate moods, but can be used to process experiences/behavior that are disturbing due to past bipolar episodes).

What does it feel like? What can I expect?

An EMDR processing session starts with the therapist reviewing the intended memory to be worked on, this is often decided on beforehand. Your therapist will ask you specific questions about that memory, this helps activate your brain and laser focus it on the problem areas. The Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) will then start, either with eye movements, audio tones, tapping, or using buzzers. How your body responds varies person to person and session to session. Often, you will experience an increase in intensity in your emotional and physiological response to the memory. This is because your brain is looking at it in a different way. It’s not just seeing a visual representation of it, it now includes the emotions, somatic sensations and what you believe about yourself. Often this increase is uncomfortable yet manageable. Sometimes you may need to pause and work with your therapist on self-regulation skills. Other times, your body may protect you by shutting your emotions down, necessitating calming interventions with your therapist. Before EMDR processing, your therapist should evaluate your emotion tolerance and provide you with tools and exercises to make sure you are equipped.

How will I feel after an EMDR session?

EMDR stimulates your brain in a unique way. This stimulation doesn’t stop when you leave your therapist’s office. It continues to work for another 48-72 hours. For many people, they won’t experience the aftereffects in any significant or disruptive way. Other people will notice feeling fatigued, irritable, having strange dreams, or other memories coming up to the surface in the day or so following the processing session. If you find it difficult to return to your life after an EMDR session, please alert your therapist so they can take more steps to contain the side effects.

How effective is EMDR?
Will it erase memories or recover repressed memories?
How do you choose what to work on?
What makes it better than other therapies?
How long will treatment effects last?

Studies show long term treatment effectiveness, if treatment is completed. Often clients leave therapy once they start to feel better, or don’t process through everything. In these cases, treatment effects tend to be short-lived. Think of it as an infection, like strep throat. If you stop taking antibiotics when you start feeling better it is likely to return; if you complete the treatment it is unlikely to resurface.

How do I choose a qualified EMDR therapist?