What is EMDR?

The History of EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  It was discovered in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, who noticed one day while walking through the park that eye movements seemed to have an impact on the level of distress she was experiencing around a problem.  After conducting some research she discovered that others experienced the same impact.

Today, EMDR has been listed as an evidenced based program and practice in SAMHSA’s national registry.  It has demonstrated effectiveness in provision with those who have experienced traumatic experiences.

How does EMDR work?

The theory behind EMDR is based on Dr. Shapiro’s coined term “Adaptive Information Processing”.  In sum, the human body has the capacity to process or “digest” various aspects of our experiences.  When an overwhelming, distressing, or traumatic experience occurs our bodies are sometimes unable to fully process or digest all of the components.  As a result of this unprocessed material, some pieces become “stuck”.  This is why some clients sometimes report that the past doesn’t feel like the past, that it is still happening and acting itself out in their daily lives, dreams, relationships, reactions to the world, etc.  EMDR supports the process of processing through such experiences so that we can adapt and digest through such experiences.

What can EMDR treat?

EMDR has demonstrated effectiveness with the following issues:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Panic Attacks
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Complicated Grief
  • Substance Abuse and Addiction
  • Chronic Pain
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Emotional Abuse
  • Physical Abuse
  • Performance Issues

Who can provide EMDR?

EMDR is provided by a licensed clinician who has completed levels 1 and 2 of the EMDRIA basic training.  In addition to completing the basic training, clinicians are required to complete a number of clinical hours of EMDR in practice while also receiving consultation around those clinical hours.

What does treatment look like?

Like other types of therapy, EMDR begins with a thorough assessment.  In this stage of treatment a therapist conducts a formal interview and the client and theraipst identify treatment goals to work towards in collaboration.

Following the assessment period, the clinician and client focus on developing coping skills or methods to manage and contain difficult emotions and experiences.  This is a key component of any trauma focused therapy.  Developing coping skills provides a client with greater opportunity to effectively manage the day to day symptoms related to trauma and anxiety, and support a person in gaining a better sense of control within their lives.  Coping skills support clients in having greater power and influence over their thoughts and emotions, rather than their thoughts and emotions having power over them.

The following stages of treatment are dedicated to desensitization of distressing memories.  “Targets” are identified which represent the worst of the past traumatic or distress producing material.  Bilateral stimulation is provided while a client focuses on the target material.  During this process clients report experiencing thoughts, feelings, memories, images, and body sensations.  During processing the client and therapist continue to work together to manage any intense reactions or memories that may surface.

Following desensitizaiton and processing of the target, the clinician and client install a positive belief as related to the material which was targeted.  A body scan is also conducted to release any tension or distress that remains in the body.  Finally, there is re-evaluation of treatment goals and additional targets.

What do clients report EMDR is like?

Clients report that EMDR is a very different experience from traditional talk therapy.  Many clients report that they sense EMDR moves much quicker than talk therapy.  However this is not to say that EMDR is not still a process and the time that it takes to work through material varies between individuals.

Clients also report that EMDR can be more intensive than talk therapy, as there is a lot of material that may present in a session and that is processed through.

When a target is successfully processed, clients report little to no negative emotional reactions to the memory.  There is a sense that the past is now the past and they are able to come to a new understanding of the experience.

Are there side effects of EMDR?

As with any type of therapy, there may be side effects.  Some common side effects include feeling tired or spacey after an EMDR session.  Some report very vivid dreams.  EMDR has the ability to unlock repressed memories and may induce flashbacks of traumatic material.  EMDR can also produce strong emotional reactions to the material which is processed.