What Is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy) is a psychotherapy that helps people alleviate symptoms caused by traumatic experiences. As its name suggests, it utilizes eye movement to facilitate the brain to reprocess (digest) unprocessed past experiences.
This seemingly unusual therapy began when a psychologist named Francine Shapiro was walking in a park and noticed that the problems that had bothered her no longer did (Shapiro, 2012). When she observed what was happening when thinking about her issues, she found that her eyes were moving from side to side at high speed. From this serendipitous discovery, she developed EMDR to help people process and eliminate the effects of current stress and past traumatic experiences.
How Does EMDR Work
How EMDR effectively resolves trauma and other stressful experiences is not fully understood. Shapiro (2018) hypothesizes the AIP l (Adaptive Information Processing) model, which assumes our brains have an innate ability to move in a healthy direction. In most cases, our brains naturally process painful incidents so they do not emotionally disturb us. For example, when you are upset about something, you find the issue less disturbing after a good night’s sleep. This is because your brain has successfully processed the disturbing incident during your sleep.
However, if a disturbing experience is too intense for the brain’s processing capacity, the experience remains unprocessed and is stored in the brain in a raw form. Whenever a trigger reminds you of the disturbing incident, the emotions, physical sensations, beliefs, and behaviors of that time will return.
For example, let’s say that your computer did not work properly when you presented at an important conference, and you felt it went horribly. If your brain sufficiently processes this experience, then although it was disappointing, it will become a learning opportunity for you. You may decide to bring a backup computer next time. But suppose your brain fails to process the experience because it was too intense. You may experience anxiety and feel stupid whenever you think about presentations and try to avoid such situations in the future.
According to the AIP model, the information-processing system in our brain needs to be activated to metabolize unprocessed memories, and bilateral stimulations (such as eye movements and tapping) are believed to have that effect. So, in EMDR sessions, clients are instructed to move their eyes while recalling disturbing memories (Shapiro, 2018). In the above example, the EMDR therapist would ask you to bring up the experience at the conference and move your eyes simultaneously so that the disturbing memory would be reprocessed and lose its power to negatively affect you.
EMDR Therapy in Practice
EMDR is a very effective method, but if you are not prepared for it, it can create confusion. Therefore, we spend much time preparing for EMDR processing. When you are sufficiently prepared, you’ll be asked to recall memories influencing your current issues, then target the important memories for processing. The failure at the conference above is a simple example, but there are often more complex experiences involved, and people are often unaware of the past experiences behind their problems. In such cases, EMDR helps uncover the past experiences causing current distress.
The therapist then asks you to recall each targeted memory, instructing you to move your eyes by following the therapist’s finger or the movement of a special computer program. If your brain successfully reprocesses the memory, the experience won’t be forgotten, but it will no longer negatively affect your present life.
Because of the recent pandemic, many therapists have moved to online therapy. EMDR therapists have tried various ways to give bilateral stimulations online, such as utilizing computer programs and tapping, and have learned that online EMDR sessions are also effective in resolving traumatic memories.
Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR therapy. New York, NY: Rodale.
Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (3rd ed.).