When working with people affected by traumatic or disturbing events, clinicians may use a type of therapy known as EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, in which both hemispheres of the brain are activated, to target specific memories or events about which a person continues to feel distress. Similar to REM sleep, this method facilitates the brain’s natural ability to process the traumatic information and integrate it into a healthy neuro-network without the emotional sting it had before.
It is important to know that EMDR is not hypnosis, it does not use fancy equipment to alter your brain, and it does not erase your memories. Instead, it helps the logical part of your brain talk to the emotional part of your brain regarding a particular memory, so that eventually what you know about the trauma can be integrated into how you truly feel about the trauma. Participants are fully aware and in control throughout the entire process. While working through old memories, participants are reminded that it’s like riding on a train, in which the scenery (memories) is just passing by and to just notice that. Many participants will describe their experience as having one foot in the past and one foot in the present, all the while anchored in the safety of the therapist’s presence.
In 2004, EMDR was endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the U.S. Department of Defense as a scientifically valid form of therapy for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Acute Stress Disorder. EMDR has also been shown to be highly effective in the treatment of body dysmorphia, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, phobias, anger management, and attachment disorders.
EMDR is typically conducted in an individual therapy setting. While there are no specific number of sessions identified for each issue, acute experiences may be significantly decreased in as few as 3 sessions. People with more complex trauma and/or more distressing events may need to participate in EMDR for several months while pairing this type of treatment with traditional talk therapy.
The following resources are helpful tools in learning more about EMDR. Please note, they are not intended to serve as substitutes for professional help. If you or someone you know is affected by trauma/abuse and would like support, please seek assistance from a licensed mental health professional.
EMDR Suggested Reading
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures, 2nd Edition by Francine Shapiro
- EMDR: The New Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. and Margot Silk Forrest