Healing Trauma — EMDR

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and ReprocessingThe greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds can change the outer aspects of their lives.” — William James

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a technique used by psychotherapists to assist clients to process and manage painful memories, trauma, fear and pain.

How was EMDR Discovered?

EMDR was first developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro who is now the Executive Director of the EMDR Institute in Pacific Grove California. She literally stumbled on the healing power of rapid eye movement while walking through a sun-dappled park. As she walked she was thinking over some disturbing personal problems. She noticed that her eyes were moving rapidly from side to side following the shadows of the leaves on the path. Simultaneously she realized that she was no longer upset by her problems. She tried to refocus on her problems, but found that they just didn’t seem to matter any more. Intrigued she experimented with friends, waving her fingers in front of their faces to replicate the rapidly moving shadows of the park. When her friends reported that they also were experiencing dramatic relief from stress she took the next step of organizing a serious clinical trial with patients coping with memories of rape, abuse and war trauma. Half of the group was treated with EMDR, half with traditional talk therapies. The EMDR group showed significant and rapid recovery from symptoms far beyond the progress of the talk therapy group.

How is EMDR Used?

Since Dr. Shapiro’s breakthrough study more than 30,000 mental health practitioners from around the world have been trained in EMDR. Volunteers from the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program have used EMDR to assist victims of war, torture, earthquakes, and hurricanes from Bosnia to Florida. Because of its controversial nature EMDR has been more studied than any other single method of mental health treatment. In a 1998 study commissioned by the American Psychological Association it was reported that “The results of the present study suggest that EMDR is effective for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and that it is more efficient than other treatments.” (Van Etten and Taylor, 1998)

When a client decides to use EMDR, the therapist uses eye movements, sound or touch to rapidly stimulate both sides of that individual’s brain while the client focuses on the distressing memory and the accompanying thoughts, feelings and body sensations. This rapid bilateral stimulation appears to stimulate the brain’s own capacity for healing. While we don’t know exactly how EMDR works, it has been hypothesized that it is similar in nature to the effects of REM sleep. EMDR is NOT a form of hypnosis. The client is awake throughout the process, and is in control of what occurs. The client may stop or slow down the process at any time he or she wishes to. Often the healing that is unleashed during EMDR continues to progress on its own well after the session is over.

How Effective is EMDR?

EMDR is most effective in helping people to process unresolved trauma (such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).Trauma comes in many forms. It can be huge and devastating:

  • Combat experience
  • Earthquake
  • Rape
  • Terrorist attack

or a series of seemingly small hurts such as:

  • Being the object of a coach’s scorn
  • Being injured by a parent
  • Failing a test
  • Loss of a job

The source of pain may be a single event, or a chronic situation, and it may be recent or many years in the past. A simple way to identify trauma is to ask yourself if the experience impacted your self-esteem, your sense of safety or your ability to live your life the way you want to.  Common symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are nightmares, difficulty sleeping (or wanting to sleep all the time), changes in eating habits, flashbacks, moments of panic or anxiety, loss of interest in social interactions, decrease in sexual interest and difficulty concentrating or fulfilling normal   tasks and obligations. You are the best judge of whether an experience was traumatic. If you are experiencing it as traumatic then you deserve to receive the help you need. EMDR can also be effective in:

  • Reducing Anxiety
  • Addressing Addictions
  • Alleviating Chronic Pain
  • Alleviating Sleep Problems
  • Improving Job Performance

For more information about EMDR and how it might be useful to you contact us at the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy, the EMDR Institute or visit the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) website.

Suggested Reading: EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety Stress and Trauma by Francine Shapiro and Margot Silk Forrest.