What is EMDR?

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing is a therapy that helps people to resolve the disturbing feelings left from a traumatic experience that continue to disrupt daily functioning long after the event. After a traumatic experience, the feelings from that experience often cannot be processed and stored in the brain as memories of ordinary experiences are. Most experiences can be recalled and feelings related to them can be evoked at will. In contrast the memories of traumatic events can appear unbidden disrupting relationships and daily functioning. It appears that traumatic experience is “frozen in time;” the feelings and the memories can be triggered by everyday events.

EMDR allows a person to focus on that experience in a safe, controlled environment. It appears to allow normal processing so that after EMDR treatment one can remember the upsetting event without distress. In the session the therapist asks the person remember the event noting thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.  The therapist then directs the person to move his eyes back and forth while the person remembers the event. Other forms of bilateral stimulation can also be used, such as tapping hands alternately or holding pulsars in the hands. From time to time the therapist stops the processing to ask the person what he or she is experiencing. Little by little the distress subsides and the client comes to a more adaptive understanding of the event. For instance, instead of thinking, “I’ve done something wrong,” the person might come to think, “I did the best I could.” During the session one might experience intense emotions, but by the end most people report a significant decrease in upsetting feelings. If the emotions are too intense, the client can stop the proceedings at any time. Like other treatments EMDR treatment varies in length. Treatment for an isolated traumatic event in an otherwise healthy person can be quite brief. People with more complex histories usually need longer treatment.

For more information on EMDR, including research about it, see the websites on the Resources page.