Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR for short is a directive therapy technique developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980’s. This is a simplified description of how the EMDR procedure is conducted.
The EMDR trained therapist sits next to the client and directs the client to focus on the therapeutic target which is the selected upsetting memory. The memory must be specific. The therapist elicits a specific visual image from the client that represents the memory along with a specific negative belief the client holds about himself or herself associated with the memory. Then the therapist directs the client to visually track two extended fingers of the therapist’s hand as the therapist moves his fingers back and forth horizontally from left to right across the client’s line of vision.
In discussing how she came up with this method, Shapiro claimed that she was walking in the park one day and discovered the technique serendipitously. She reported that an upsetting memory lost its sting after she moved her eyes back and forth horizontally while focusing on the memory. This began her search for the reasons why this happened and as she conducted her personal research, she elaborated the technique and created a theory she called Accelerated Information Processing or AIP.
According to Shapiro, visually tracking from left to right while keeping the memory in mind activates both brain hemispheres which, when the therapy target has been properly set up, sets into action cross hemispheric cortical processing of memories frozen in the more primitive parts of the brain. This process is inferred to unfreeze the stored but unprocessed and undigested material and allow it to be emotionally and cognitively metabolized and digested.
The idea as I see it, is that there is this undigested glob of data that clogs the system and interferes with the healthy digestion of events in the present.
Shapiro claimed that she used the technique with everyone she encountered who wanted to neutralize upsetting memories. She did her Ph.D. dissertation on using the method to help combat veterans recover from combat related PTSD. Shapiro reported her results and started giving workshops on EMDR for therapists who treated trauma survivors. Shapiro rapidly accrued a following, and Level I and Level II EMDR workshops were offered around the US.
Subsequent research showed that EMDR was effective in helping people with PTSD reduce the extent to which intrusive recollections and flashbacks tormented them.
Francine Shapiro creatively drew on techniques from Cognitive Therapy and Behavior Therapy as well as from work in Guided Imagery and Gestalt Therapy to refine her method. She assiduously avoided classifying her work as hypnosis and she argued that EMDR was not a hypnosis technique nor was it trance work. However, many other researchers disagreed. Among her proponents, some such as the neuropsychiatrist and trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, conducted EMDR studies using quantitative EEG brain mapping. He concluded that the brain wave patterns of patients during EMDR sessions were distinctly different from the brain waves of subjects under hypnosis.
In simple terms, the EMDR technique involves the following set up:
- Establishing a baseline measurement of how upsetting a memory is. This is measured using a Subjective Units of Distress or SUDS scale ranging from 0 to 10. The SUDS scale comes from Joseph Wolpe’s and Arnold Lazarus’s Behavior Therapy technique of Systematic Desensitization.
- Assessing the main picture or visual image the client has in his or her mind associated with the memory.
- Identifying the main negative belief or “Negative Cognition” the client holds about himself or herself associated with the memory.
- The client is then helped to formulate a more adaptive and healthier self-belief or “Positive Cognition”.
- Repetitive sets of eye movements are then conducted to help the client process the memory along with all this material which are posited to form a neural network.
- The objective is to move the client from believing the negative cognition about self to believing the healthier updated point of view represented by the positive cognition.
Careful attention is placed on keeping the client safe to avoid re-traumatizing the client. In order to do this, safe place imagery is created before the procedure is implemented.
Therapists who use this technique must be well trained and must be one hundred percent present and in synch with the client for the technique to be effective and safe. For EMDR to be effective, the therapist has to safely encourage the client to work through explosive and upsetting feelings and emotions. This is called safely working through abreactions.
The well trained EMDR therapist knows how to keep the client safe by titrating abreactions through the use of wise support, breaking down the memories into digestible chunks, and the use of relaxation and safe place imagery.
Call me or email me here for a free 15-minute phone consultation to find out if EMDR therapy is right for you.
In recent years, the EMDR technique has been used with some controversy in VA medical centers with combat veterans and internationally in war zones. In the last decade, an organization was formed with training and certification standards called EMDRIA which stands for EMDR International Association.
Most EMDR trained clinicians such as myself nowadays use the technique in an integrated fashion with other techniques such as hypnotherapy and energy psychology methods such as meridian tapping.
Like most psychotherapy techniques, EMDR has a place in the well trained therapist’s toolbox. However, as with most therapy techniques, it is not the be all end all.
I am an EMDR trained therapist. I trained with Francine Shapiro in 1991 and became an EMDR facilitator for her at her trainings. I left her organization in 1994 given my interest in further pursuing my studies in clinical hypnosis.
I was especially interested in studying the potential of EMDR therapy to relieve chronic pain and I published several articles on this topic in the EMDR Network Newsletter. See below. I also published a monograph on EMDR for Chronic Pain in 1994. It is available for those who are interested.
Click here to get my monograph on EMDR for Chronic Pain
Call or email me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to find out if EMDR therapy is right for you.
Eimer, B.N. (Winter, 1993). EMDR approaches for treating chronic pain.
EMDR Network Newsletter. 3(3).
Eimer, B.N. (January, 1993). Psychological desensitization and reprocessing of chronic pain with EMDR. EMDR Network Newsletter. 3(1).
Eimer, B.N. (1994). EMDR Approaches to Managing Chronic Pain.
Philadelphia, PA: The Behavior Therapy Center.