top of page

What is EMDR?

Updated: Mar 9

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a fairly new, nontraditional type of psychotherapy. It's growing in popularity, particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD often occurs after experiences such as military combat, physical assault, rape, or car accidents.

At first glance, EMDR appears to approach psychological issues in a nontraditional way. It does not rely on talk therapy or medications. Instead, EMDR uses a patient's own rapid, rhythmic eye movements. These eye movements dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events.

What Can You Expect From EMDR?

An EMDR treatment session can last up to 90 minutes. Your therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face and ask you to follow these hand motions with your eyes. At the same time, the EMDR therapist will have you recall a disturbing event. This will include the emotions and body sensations that go along with it.

Gradually, the therapist will guide you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones. Some therapists use alternatives to finger movements, such as hand or toe tapping or musical tones.

The EMDR technique can weaken the effect of negative emotions. Before and after each EMDR treatment, your therapist will ask you to rate your level of distress. Allowing your disturbing memories to become less disabling.

Although most research into EMDR has examined its use in people with PTSD, EMDR is sometimes used experimentally to treat many other psychological problems. They include: Panic attacks/ Eating disorders/ Addictions/ Anxiety, such as discomfort with public speaking or dental procedures.

How Effective Is EMDR?

More than 20,000 practitioners have been trained to use EMDR since psychologist Francine Shapiro developed the technique in 1989. While walking through the woods one day, Shapiro happened to notice that her own negative emotions lessened as her eyes darted from side to side. Then, she found the same positive effect in patients.

EMDR appears to be a safe therapy, with no negative side effects. There is an increase use of mental health practitioners. Researchers have shown the treatment's effectiveness in published reports that consolidated data from several studies.

What Do the Guidelines Recommend?

Guidelines issued by more than one professional organization have recently boosted the credibility of EMDR. These guidelines define who may benefit from the treatment. For example:

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted that EMDR is effective for treating symptoms of acute and chronic PTSD. According to the APA, EMDR may be particularly useful for people who have trouble talking about the traumatic events they've experienced. The APA guidelines note that other research is needed to tell whether improvements from EMDR can be sustained over time. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have jointly issued clinical practice guidelines. These guidelines "strongly recommended" EMDR for the treatment of PTSD in both military and non-military populations. They also note that this approach has been as effective as other psychological treatments in some studies, and less effective in others.

WebMD LLC (2019)

The Progress of EMDR

Trauma shoves a mind into overdrive. The brain tries to block out fragments of disaster: the spray of shattered glass as one car slammed into another, the smell of smoke. People with post-traumatic stress disorder sometimes constrict their lives, avoiding streets or smells or songs that make them think about what they’ve experienced. But memories make themselves known — in nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts.

Since PTSD was first included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, clinicians have identified a handful of therapies that help people cope with traumatic memories. Over the past decade, a seemingly unconventional treatment has wedged its way into mainstream therapy.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, better known as E.M.D.R., might look bizarre to an observer. The practice involves coaxing people to process traumatic memories while simultaneously interacting with images, sounds or sensations that activate both sides of the brain. Patients might flit their eyes back and forth, following a therapist’s finger or stare at bursts of light on alternating sides of a screen. The idea is to anchor the brain in the current moment as a patient recalls the past.

In recent years, E.M.D.R. has attracted more attention, thanks in part to increased demand for trauma treatment throughout the pandemic and celebrities who have shared their experiences. Prince Harry filmed an E.M.D.R. session for a documentary series with Oprah. Sandra Bullock said she turned to E.M.D.R. after a stalker broke into her home in 2014; “The Good Place” actress Jameela Jamil wrote in a 2019 Instagram post that E.M.D.R. “saved my life.”

Patients who seek out E.M.D.R. may be inspired by another source: “The Body Keeps the Score,” a seminal book on trauma that has stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for over 200 weeks. Bessel van der Kolk, the book’s author, touts the treatment as one of the most effective ways to combat PTSD symptoms. “It’s not really an innovative treatment anymore,” he said. “It’s something that’s very well-established.” (New York Times)

As EMDR treatment is becoming more "well-established," the numbers are growing to seek this kind of treatment. These testimonies become more evident in contributing to the first step to seek EMDR treatment. However, there are many still out there unfamiliar with this treatment. If more people struggling with traumatic experiences were aware of EMDR, the choice to combat these traumatic experiences would be with assurance. This might not be an easy step to take and our EMDR trained therapists are available for your first step to restoring and gaining back the lifestyle you deserve.


bottom of page