Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique that utilizes a characteristic motion of the eyes in conjunction with therapeutic guidance to bring about emotional healing, sometimes at an accelerated rate. Although not part of the original EMDR teachings, clinical experiences have repeatedly demonstrated that EMDR also helps accelerate the physical healing process.

What is the history of EMDR?

EMDR has been used by trained mental health professionals since 1989. Its originator, Francine Shapiro PhD, discovered that moving her eyes in certain directions reduced emotional tension. Francine did further investigation into this phenomenon making EMDR the subject of her doctoral thesis in 1987. Integrating her clinical experience, Francine has formulated a unique method which she calls EMDR.

Who can benefit from EMDR?

Anyone who has ever experienced an upset that they have not recovered from. Often these people have one or more of the following symptoms in varying degrees: feeling “stuck”, excess stress/tension, depression, anxiety, restlessness, sleep trouble, fatigue, appetite disturbances, and ongoing physical health concerns despite treatment. In the more severe cases: panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, obsessions, compulsions, eating disorder, and suicidal tendencies.

On the physical health front, EMDR is also a wonderful technque to assist with the healing of any physical health concern.

How does EMDR treatment work?

When an upset is experienced, it can become locked in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. This upset is stored in the brain (and also the body) in an isolated memory network preventing learning from taking place. Old material just keeps getting triggered over & over again and you end up feeling “stuck” emotionally. In another part of your brain, in a separate network, is most of the information you need to resolve the upset. It’s just prevented from linking up to the old stuff. Once processing starts with EMDR, the 2 networks can link up. New information can then come to mind to resolve the old problems.

How effective is EMDR?

When compared to other methods of therapy (psychoanalysis, cognitive, behavioral, etc), EMDR has been rated as far more effective by mental health professionals. Clients experience emotional healing at an accelerated rate. If we use the metaphor of a driving a car through a tunnel to get to the other side, (where the tunnel represents the journey of healing and the other side of the tunnel represents the healed state), EMDR is like driving your car through the tunnel at very high speeds. Because of this accelerated processing, you should notice improvement within each session.

How does the overall treatment with EMDR look?

EMDR focuses first on the past, second on the present and third on the future. The past is focused on first because it is the past unresolved pain (whether it is childhood or the more recent past) which is causing pain in the present. Dealing with the past is therefore going to the root of the problem. For example, if a client comes in with depression and she has a history of being depressed since a death in her family, we would focus on the time around the death first because it is the root of the depression. To only focus on the symptoms of the depression in the present would be like taking an aspirin for a headache caused by a brain tumor rather than working with the brain tumor.

Once the past pain has been cleared, most of the present symptom picture will also be cleared. If anything is left unresolved in the present, it is attended to next.

Then comes preparation for the future. Many people have fears about healing … how their life will change, how they will function with their new perspective on the world, etc. “Future” work is about being prepared.

What will I experience during an EMDR treatment?

Before any EMDR treatment, there is a preparation & assessment phase. The purpose of the preparation phase is to help you feel safe within yourself and to explain and demonstrate EMDR techniques so you know what to expect. The purpose of the assessment phase is to isolate memories to work with in EMDR that are the root of your emotional/physical pain today. The length of time for each of these phases varies per person dependent upon their individual needs.

Once the preparation and assessment phases are complete, the treatment phase begins. You will be asked to focus on a “target” image (one selected together during the assessment phase) while following the practitioners fingers (or a pen) with your eyes. Once you start the eye movement, you will find it very difficult to focus on the memory. This is normal. The initial focusing on the memory opens the door to the memory, the EMDR completes the processing on a deeper subconscious level.

The eye movements are done in short sets (15-30 seconds) with breaks in between of varying length dependent upon your needs. The sets continue until processing is complete for a given memory. You can stop the process at any time by raising your hand. It is important to remember that your brain is doing the processing and that you are the one in control.

EMDR is a passive process. Just will be asked to just let whatever happens, happen. You may experience feelings, thoughts, body sensations. You may experience nothing. Whatever you experience, you will be asked to notice it as if you were passing by it on a train rather than being within the experience. If at any time you feel overwhelmed, you only need to raise your hand to stop the process. You will be asked to share what comes up in the break between sets. There are no right or wrong answers. This information will only guide future sets.

Your feelings surrounding a given event will be rated by you (from 1-10) both prior to and after EMDR treatment. The aim of every EMDR session is noticeable improvement by the time you leave the session.

How long does each EMDR session last?

Sessions are done in either 60 or 90 min intervals.

How frequently is EMDR treatment recommended?

Dr. Shapiro recommends once per week if possible. However, I believe that frequency is about what ultimately feels comfortable for you.

How long is the overall treatment with EMDR?

It is important to note that EMDR is always done in the context of an overall therapy plan. The EMDR time portion itself varies for each individual. Starting off with at least 3 sessions of EMDR will give you some idea of its effectiveness for you and the rate at which you are healing. From there it is dependent upon your individual needs and situation.