What is EMDR?
EMDR is the acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a therapy developed by Shapiro in 1987 to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). In EMDR’s early days, clients would follow the clinician’s finger from left to right with their eyes while thinking about their traumatic experience. Moving the eyes from left to right is a form of bilateral stimulation (BLS), a set of rhythmic body movements which activate both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. BLS has a dual purpose.
Firstly, it has a desensitization effect, causing memories, images, and emotions to be experienced as less distressing to the client. In other words, when remembering a traumatic experience after doing EMDR work, the client may feel sad as opposed to feeling paralyzed by fear. Secondly, by activating both hemispheres of the brain, the client can re-process the event. Trauma memories are stored in the right hemisphere of the brain in a fragmented form. When the traumatic memory is connected to the left hemisphere of the brain (where logical, rational, and analytical thinking reside), the memory can be re-processed into a cohesive whole. Through this mechanism, clients come to recognize, for instance, that they are safe in the present and that they have survived the event, as opposed to their body and mind responding as though they are still caught up in the trauma.
Today, various types of BLS are used based on individual needs and preferences, and include alternate foot tapping, arm tapping, electronic paddles vibrating in one’s hands, or headphones through which alternating tones can be heard. These alternating tones, movements, and vibrations have powerful positive effects on the client.
EMDR is a bit different from traditional talk therapy, where information is flowing between therapist and client in a conversational manner. Here, the client does most of the talking, sharing the experiences coming up for them. During the EMDR process, the clinician acts as a guide and sets the client up so that their own brain does the healing work. Our body and brain know what we need, and given the opportunity and the tools, it has the wisdom to achieve a state of health and wholeness.
It is important to note that EMDR is not a form of hypnosis. Memories are not eliminated or forgotten, they are merely re-processed and integrated in a healthy way with reduced negative emotional charge.
EMDR is effective in treating childhood trauma, PTSD, complex trauma, anxiety, depression, phobias, grief, and many other challenges clients face.
EMDR is safe, and it is the most researched and widely accepted form of psychotherapy for the treatment of PTSD, with over 44 randomized clinical studies proving its efficacy. In fact, a 2007 study by van der Kolk et al. comparing the efficacy of EMDR and Prozac in the treatment of PTSD proved that EMDR proved more effective.
This article constitutes Part 1 of a series of articles on the topic to be released monthly. Visit https://www.psycentre.ca/mental-health-blog for previous and upcoming blog posts on a wide range of mental health topics.
Parnell, L., (2007). A Therapist’s Guide to EMDR: Tools and Techniques for Successful Treatment. Norton & Company.
van der Kolk, B., Spinazzola, J., Blaustein, M., Hopper, J., Hopper, E., Korn, D., & Simpson, W. (2007). A Randomized Clinical Trial of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Fluoxetine, and Pill Placebo in the Treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (68), 37-46. 10.4088/JCP.v68n0105.