Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) integrates many already successful components of a range of therapeutic approaches. However, EMDR also has many unique features. EMDR is therapist lead in a series of lateral eye movements while the patient simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory. The left – right eye movements in EMDR therapy are a form of “bilateral stimulation”. Other forms of bilateral stimulation used by EMDR therapists include alternating bilateral sound using headphones and alternating tactile simulation using a handheld device that vibrates or taps to the back of the patient’s hands.
EMDR was developed by American clinical psychologist Francine Shapiro in the 1980s (F. Shapiro, 1989). The therapy involves the identification of unprocessed traumatic or other distressing experiences that are continuing to drive an individual’s psychological disturbance. The client is asked to recall the worst aspect of the memory together with the accompanying currently held negative cognitions and associated bodily sensations. Simultaneously they are directed to move their eyes from side to side, or employ some other form of bilateral stimulation (BLS). The effect is to desensitise the client to the distressing memory but, more importantly, to reprocess the memory so that the associated cognitions become more adaptive
EMDR therapy can treat a wide range of psychological problems that result from trauma. The goal of EMDR is to fully process past experiences and resolve the negative emotions attached to those experiences. Negative thoughts and feelings that are no longer useful are replaced with positive thoughts and feelings that will encourage healthier behaviour and social interactions.
How does EMDR work?
When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level. When a person recalls the distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes the memories are so distressing, the person tries to avoid thinking about the distressing event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.
Some find that the distressing memories come to mind when something reminds them of the distressing event, or sometimes the memories just seem to just pop into mind. The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.
In the process the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity, so that the memories are less distressing and seem more like ‘ordinary’ memories. The effect is believed to be similar to that which occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side. EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it was what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt or thought.