Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of therapy originated by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. Her research began in the late ’80s with 70 volunteers, eventually developing a standard procedure with continued research. In 1989, Shapiro published a study with 22 volunteers suffering from memories of traumatic events, such as the Vietnam War, childhood abuse, and sexual or physical assault. This study proved successful after one session by helping the subjects desensitize their memories.
What Is EMDR?
Unlike talk therapy, where a patient talks about their life events, EMDR mainly treats people who have lived a traumatic event. It is a treatment that is open for every age range; there are even children’s therapists who specialize in EMDR for kids.
What to Expect
When you go to an EMDR appointment, expect to discuss what brought you to seek this type of therapy. After a discussion about what you have experienced and what you are looking to accomplish, your therapist will decide if EMDR is the right choice for you.
According to the EMDR International Association, patients are asked to focus on an image, feeling, or belief associated with the distressing event and then on a positive event. When focusing on the adverse event, the therapist will begin sets of side-to-side eye movements, taps, or sounds and asks what comes to mind after each set. The client is in control and can end the session at any point. The goal is that the traumatic memories become less disturbing after each set.
Adaptive Information Processing
EMDR relies upon the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, also developed by Dr. Shapiro. The theory says that your brain stores memories separately, depending on whether they are normal or traumatic. Your brain stores regular memories smoothly, but when you live through a distressing event, it experiences a disconnect, causing it to store memories in a way that doesn’t allow for healing. The AIP model states that because of how traumatic memories are stored, the brain never receives the message that the danger has ended.
Because the traumatic memory is not stored smoothly, it can link the most recent traumatic event to previous traumatic experiences, reinforcing a negative incident. The body also becomes sensitive to anything you might have seen, smelled, felt, or heard concerning the traumatic experience. When any of these senses trigger you, it is the equivalent of injuring an open wound.
According to the AIP model, linking memories and senses to traumatic events isn’t exclusive to events you remember; it is also true of suppressed memories, which don’t allow your brain to heal, and, therefore, accessing these memories through the senses “injures” you and causes adverse symptoms.
If you think EMDR therapy might be right for you, contact your healthcare provider to discuss your options.