What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), devised in the late 1980s, is a type of therapy used to help people resolve emotional distress stemming from traumatic life experiences such as combat, rape, car accidents, natural disaster or physical assault.

Today, EMDR is implemented as a treatment for a number of emotional problems, including panic attacks, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, depression and substance abuse and addiction. It is particularly useful for people who have difficulty talking about the traumatic experience.

The Studies

A number of studies over the last couple of decades have indicated a dramatic improvement with EMDR, sometimes after only a few sessions. A study conducted by Kaiser Permanente found that more than three-quarters of multi-trauma victims and 100 percent of single-trauma victims were free of PTSD after six sessions. In another study involving combat victims, a high percentage of participants were completely free of symptoms after 12 sessions.

EMDR has been approved by the American Psychology Association and is included in the American Psychiatric Association’s Guidelines for treatment of patients with PTSD and acute stress. It is strongly recommended by the U.S. Department of Defense.

In the U.K., the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence requires that EMDR be included by clinics that provide services to people diagnosed with PTSD.

What are EMDR Sessions Like?

The length of EMDR sessions vary depending on the needs of the client, and can last as long as 90 minutes. Treatment is a multi-step process that includes explanation of the procedure, personal history, and discussion of the traumatic event and current level of stress.

The therapist will ask the patient to remember a disturbing event and hold it in mind, recalling the bodily sensations, images and emotions. At the same time, the therapist will move her fingers from side to side and ask the patient to follow the movement visually, much like watching a tennis match.

Gradually, the therapist will help the patient shift to more positive thoughts. At the end of the session, the therapist will ensure the patient is okay, and will ask the patient to rate the current level of stress.

How it Works

Nobody is exactly sure exactly how EMDR works, but researchers believe therapy involving rapid eye movements, much like REM sleep, changes how the brain processes information and release patients from feeling trapped in frightening emotions.

People who experience trauma will learn to replace negative images and emotions with positive thoughts, thus no longer continually reliving the feelings, images and sounds connected to the traumatic event.

Traumatic memories are are still present, but they cease to hold a strong influence over the traumatized person.

Although EMDR is becoming more widely accepted, it remains controversial. Some naysayers say studies have been limited and that it’s too soon to know of the benefits will be sustained over time.

If You’re Considering EMDR

If you’re interested in EMDR, look for a licensed counselor, psychologist, social worker or therapist with experience in EMDR. Many mental health care providers, PTSD clinics and drug and alcohol treatment centers include EMDR in their treatment approaches.

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