EMDR stands for “eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing.” It is a type of therapy that can help individuals recover from trauma they’ve experienced by allowing the brain to process these distressing memories in a new way.

It does not require homework between sessions, and it does not require the client to talk about a distressing event in great detail. For this reason, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) states that EMDR can be particularly useful for individuals who struggle to discuss a particular event.

Further, healing through EMDR can sometimes be achieved much quicker than through traditional psychotherapy.

History of EMDR & How it Works

In 1987, EMDR’s founder, Francine Shapiro, was walking through a park. During the walk, she realized that her distressing thoughts and feelings had suddenly decreased. As she tried to dissect what had happened, she remembered that she had been moving her eyes back and forth, and she wondered if this is what caused the change of events.

Soon after, she began experimenting. She asked individuals to recall a distressing event while quickly moving their eyes from side-to-side. She and the participants found that their distress decreased. Shapiro then researched and developed a distinct protocol for clinicians to follow, which is now known as EMDR. It includes 8 phases that are conducted over the course of multiple sessions (typically 6-12).

EMDR Today

Today, EMDR can be conducted a few different ways. Essentially, the client is asked to recall a disturbing thought or memory while rapidly moving their eyes back and forth. This is often done by following the therapist’s moving finger, but it can also be accomplished through other ways, such as hand-tapping or musical tones. By splitting your attention between two things (the memory and the eye movement), it helps you to stay grounded and feel safe in the present moment, while also allowing the brain to process the distressing memory in a more gentle way.

When discussing how this technique affects the brain, the EMDR Institute states the following:

“The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a disturbing event, the emotional wound festers and can cause intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR therapy training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes.”

Does It Actually Work?

While it might sound a bit “out there,” research has consistently found EMDR to be an effective treatment, and it is endorsed by many professional organizations, including APA, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Research has shown that EMDR is particularly effective in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of trauma. Trauma can result from military combat, physical assault, abuse, losing a child, car accidents, a near-death experience, and more.

While most research has examined EMDR as a treatment for PTSD, there is also evidence to suggest that EMDR can be an effective treatment for several other concerns. The EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) states that EMDR can be used to treat the following concerns:

  • Anxiety, panic attacks, and phobias
  • Chronic illness and medical issues
  • Depression and bipolar disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Grief and loss
  • Pain
  • Performance anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • PTSD and other trauma and stress-related issues
  • Sexual assault
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Violence and abuse

I’m Interested in EMDR: Now What?

While EMDR might sound simple, it’s not recommended to try this technique on your own. Again, there is a specific protocol that has been developed through research and is important to follow. Therefore, it’s important to only engage in EMDR with a mental health professional who has received official training in the technique. If a clinician offers EMDR as a treatment at their practice, please make sure that they have received official training. When done correctly, EMDR has been shown to be a very safe and effective treatment.

For more information on EMDR, you can visit EMDRIA and the EMDR Institute. If you think you might benefit from EMDR, we have several team members trained in this technique and may be able to help. If you are outside of the Cincinnati area, you can visit EMDRIA’s website to find a trained clinician near you.