Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, widely referred to by its initials EMDR, is a popular technique for the treatment of trauma. It was developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s and has been widely researched and proven to be an effective treatment method. Today, thousands of clinicians all over the world practice EMDR and use it to help their clients overcome past traumatic experiences and heal.
You may be thinking that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a mouthful—and you’d be right! So what do those words actually mean? EMDR works by using bilateral stimulation, which is basically the use of a visual, auditory, or tactile stimulus in a rhythmic, side-to-side pattern. Though EMDR was developed based on eye movements, today EMDR can be effective using eye movements, sounds, or tapping. Methods of delivering this treatment range from following a clinician’s fingers with your eyes as they move from side to side, or holding a set of vibrating paddles in each hand that will vibrate alternately between the left and right sides.
An EMDR therapist will ask you to identify traumatic memories or past experiences that continue to cause you distress. She will also ask you about the ways in which you cope with distress, and offer healthy strategies for grounding yourself when you are feeling activated. Later in the treatment, your therapist will ask you to conjure an image related to your traumatic memory and a belief about yourself that that memory inspires. She may also ask you if any emotions or body sensations arise when you think about that memory and its image.
After you have pinpointed the memories that you want to target, you will be ready for bilateral stimulation. You’ll be asked to picture the image you have conjured of your traumatic memory as you watch your therapist’s fingers wave back and forth, or listen to unobtrusive beeping sounds in your right and left ears. As you engage in bilateral stimulation, the image in your mind may shift to something. You may begin to feel certain physical sensations or emotions. Memories may arise during this process as well, even memories you had not accessed in a long time. The process will continue until you can think back to your targeted memory without feeling distress.
EMDR was initially developed to treat and proven effective in the treatment of “Large ‘T’ Trauma,” which refers to a significant event that leaves you feelings powerless and out of control of your environment. Examples would include being in a car accident or witnessing an act of violence. A person can suffer this type of trauma at any age.
Developmental trauma refers to the repeated trauma that happens to children over the course of their nervous system development. Examples would include child abuse or neglect. This trauma is particularly hard to treat, because it does not boil down to a single instance or memory that can be pinpointed. The good news, however, is that since its discovery, EMDRY has been found to be more broadly applicable that to just the treatment of “Large ‘T’ Trauma.” Clinicians are successfully treating developmental trauma with EMDR.
If traumatic experiences from your past are causing you emotional distress, reach out to a mental health professional to see if you would be a good candidate for EMDR.