Clinical psychologist Francine Shapiro was taking a stroll in 1987 when she noticed a curious phenomenon: the movement of her eyes seemed to reduce negative feelings associated with traumatic memories in her past. Her subsequent investigation revealed that other people had similar responses based on their eye movements.
Dr. Shapiro’s curiosity didn’t stop there. She went on to develop an innovative therapeutic approach for dealing with unresolved emotional trauma known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Since then, EMDR has helped millions of people break free from the grip of past traumas such as military combat, physical assault, rape, car accidents, and emotional abuse.
Results are not immediate; a number of sessions are usually required. But numerous studies show that EMDR therapy can make a dramatic difference. In one study funded by Kaiser Permanente, 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple-trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after six 50-minute sessions.
A key part of EMDR therapy is the use of dual attention stimuli, whereby patients focus on an internal stimulus (from their own memory) and an external one (as directed by the therapist) at the same time. As patients think of a negative image, emotion, or sensation associated with a traumatic memory, they simultaneously track the therapist’s hand movement across their field of vision. With the therapist’s guidance, the traumatic memory is linked to more adaptive information that can help prevent the memory from causing emotional distress and dysfunctional reactions—in both the present and the future.
Vision is the typical choice for focusing on external stimuli, but sounds and tactile stimulation such as chimes or tapping a patient’s hand may also be used. EMDR can be especially appropriate for people who find it difficult to discuss the details of a past trauma, since it does not require the patient to talk about the experience.
While the mechanism by which EMDR works is not fully understood, it may have something in common with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Studies have shown that REM sleep plays a role in thought processing and may help promote insightful thinking. EMDR seems similar to hypnosis, but there are key differences. Patients undergoing hypnosis often focus on a neutral or soothing image in order to enter a state in which they can be more responsive to suggestion. EMDR, on the other hand, involves a dual focus on both negative and positive images to help form associations that promote rational resolution of irrational behaviors.
Results are not immediate; a number of sessions are usually required. But numerous studies show that EMDR therapy can make a dramatic difference. In one study funded by Kaiser Permanente, 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple-trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans no longer had PTSD after 12 sessions. Based on these and other findings, the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and Department of Defense have endorsed EMDR as an effective treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences.
For more information, visit the EMDR Institute’s website.