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What is EMDR and How Can it Help?

What is EMDR and How Can it Help?

Written by
Lewis Orr
In 1987, 39 years old and anxious, Francine Shapiro took a walk in the park. She happened to notice that shifting her eyes from side to side calmed her. As a psychologist, she created EMDR. By 2012, over 60,000 clinicians were trained in it.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a technique of psychotherapy, mainly for trauma. The key to EMDR is “bilateral stimulation”: engaging senses on both sides of a patient. The most well-known example is requesting the patient to follow the therapist’s fingers as they move from left to right.

The idea is that bilateral stimulation assists wrapping the mind around trauma because it calms the patient. There is no definitive explanation why. A leading theory is that the eye movement replicates the function of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in processing memories. EMDR usually accompanies standard methods of psychotherapy like talking therapy. An EMDR session is a conversation between the patient and therapist about a past trauma. When the therapist has learnt enough information, they start to bilaterally stimulate the patient. The patient is calmer and so can better discuss their past which is disturbing even to remember. With enough repetition of these talks, in theory the memories no longer arouse fear.

Note, it is possible that EMDR works in a way similar to systematic desensitization. In this model, the eye movements serve to relax and distract the patient while confronting painful material related to the trauma as the supportive therapist helps the patient cognitively to make sense of the experiences. Additionally, it is important to understand that whilst EMDR has been proven on average to be more effective than talking to a supportive listener, exposure based treatments such as CBT are still considered more effective for easing anxiety related to traumatic experiences.

Is EMDR therapy backed by evidence?

The science shows that EMDR produces improves mental conditions more than supportive listening . There is some dispute over whether it works better than standard behaviour and cognitive-behaviour therapies. What is clear is that “the quality of studies” is not yet enough to draw definite conclusions . There are increasingly complicated courses clinicians must take to be certified to use EMDR. Some, such as McNally (2003), have suggested this is an effort to make it more difficult to run experiments on EMDR. Whatever the data, there is much anecdotal support of EMDR, and it has generated passionate reactions in the psychoanalytic community for the last 30 years. We will watch the coming studies, and eagerly.

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emdr-taking-a-closer-look/

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16506073.2019.1703801

What is EMDR and How Can it Help?

In 1987, 39 years old and anxious, Francine Shapiro took a walk in the park. She happened to notice that shifting her eyes from side to side calmed her. As a psychologist, she created EMDR. By 2012, over 60,000 clinicians were trained in it.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR is a technique of psychotherapy, mainly for trauma. The key to EMDR is “bilateral stimulation”: engaging senses on both sides of a patient. The most well-known example is requesting the patient to follow the therapist’s fingers as they move from left to right.

The idea is that bilateral stimulation assists wrapping the mind around trauma because it calms the patient. There is no definitive explanation why. A leading theory is that the eye movement replicates the function of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep in processing memories. EMDR usually accompanies standard methods of psychotherapy like talking therapy. An EMDR session is a conversation between the patient and therapist about a past trauma. When the therapist has learnt enough information, they start to bilaterally stimulate the patient. The patient is calmer and so can better discuss their past which is disturbing even to remember. With enough repetition of these talks, in theory the memories no longer arouse fear.

Note, it is possible that EMDR works in a way similar to systematic desensitization. In this model, the eye movements serve to relax and distract the patient while confronting painful material related to the trauma as the supportive therapist helps the patient cognitively to make sense of the experiences. Additionally, it is important to understand that whilst EMDR has been proven on average to be more effective than talking to a supportive listener, exposure based treatments such as CBT are still considered more effective for easing anxiety related to traumatic experiences.

Is EMDR therapy backed by evidence?

The science shows that EMDR produces improves mental conditions more than supportive listening . There is some dispute over whether it works better than standard behaviour and cognitive-behaviour therapies. What is clear is that “the quality of studies” is not yet enough to draw definite conclusions . There are increasingly complicated courses clinicians must take to be certified to use EMDR. Some, such as McNally (2003), have suggested this is an effort to make it more difficult to run experiments on EMDR. Whatever the data, there is much anecdotal support of EMDR, and it has generated passionate reactions in the psychoanalytic community for the last 30 years. We will watch the coming studies, and eagerly.

[1] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emdr-taking-a-closer-look/

[2] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16506073.2019.1703801