EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a comprehensive psychotherapy method used for processing trauma. Developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, it is a widely researched model for treating PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and distressing events/memories.
Shapiro discovered that when negative or distressing thoughts were held in the mind while paired with eye movements back and forth, the intensity of the distressing thoughts tended to fade. Fascinated by this discovery, she began to formulate a standardized protocol which has been applied to a variety of traumatic experiences, ranging from single incident traumas to more diffuse developmental traumas.
Her basic premise is that our mind naturally has an information processing capacity to filter and process events throughout our day. This processing goes on automatically, without conscious effort. Even during sleep, our brains enter various sleep cycles to continue processing our daily experiences. REM ( rapid eye movement ) sleep occurs with our eyes moving back and forth as part of this processing.
When disturbing events happen, they are sometimes not fully processed the way more neutral information is. When material is overwhelming, natural processing becomes stuck, truncated, and overwhelmed which can leave material unintegrated and unresolved. When this happens, we can feel flooded, unbalanced, overwhelmed or shut down.
When this is the case, EMDR can be used to help the material re-enter the natural processing channels that will then help it to resolve. It’s not entirely clear how EMDR works, but it is theorized that the bilateral movements, the back and forth movement of the eyes, processes information similar to how REM sleep processes information. It is thought that this bilateral movement helps integrate material between the two hemispheres of the brain. While this happens automatically in our sleep, when using EMDR, we bring up the distressing material on purpose and pair it with bilateral movements. This helps activate our internal information processing mechanism which then helps to process the material to resolution.
When I first learned EMDR in 2001, it was taught mostly by having the client follow the clinician’s fingers back and forth, side to side, simulating the movement of REM sleep. Over the years, bilateral movements have been adapted and expanded to include tapping alternatively on the knees, using pulsers, via a machine where the client holds tappers that alternate vibrating pulsers in each hand, and audio tones that alternate back and forth via headphones. It seems that no one particular form of bilateral stimulation is favored over any other. As long as there is bilateral movement, all forms of bilateral stimulation have the same potential for positive outcomes. It really is a matter of what is most comfortable for the client.
For the majority of my clients, I use a thera-tapper machine with two pulsers that clients hold in each hand. Collaborating with my clients, I set the pulsing speed and intensity to a comfortable pace that the client determines. Using this machine allows clients to close their eyes and focus inwardly rather than keeping their eyes open and moving them back and forth, which is very uncomfortable for some people.
I have used EMDR for 20 + years, and most recently use EMDR with an attachment focus to help repair developmental wounding. I have seen remarkable processing and integration for clients as a result of using EMDR.
For more information about how I use EMDR, please refer to my chapters as a contributing author in Laurel Parnell’s book, Attachment-Focused EMDR: Healing Relational Trauma.
For more information about EMDR, please go to www.emdr.com.
For locating an EMDR therapist internationally, please go to www.emdria.org.