Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was originally conceived by Dr. Francine Shapiro during a chance encounter in a park when she was feeling distressed. As she was walking through the park, her eyes began to dart back and forth rapidly while taking in the scenery. She then started to notice that distressing thoughts were no longer “looping” in her mind as they were before; the negative associations these thoughts had originally carried were disappearing and changing as she rapidly moved her eyes back and forth.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit odd, you’re not alone. Many mental health practitioners and members of the public alike approach EMDR therapy with a healthy dose of skepticism upon first hearing about it. I encourage you to read on to learn more about the theory and mechanisms behind EMDR therapy, and perhaps to help decide for yourself if this is something that you think might be beneficial for you to undertake with a trained EMDR therapist.
In comprehensively explaining EMDR, Laliotis and colleagues offer the following definition (I will break it down in the paragraphs that follow):
EMDR therapy is an integrative, client-centered approach that treats problems of daily living based on disturbing life experiences that continue to have a negative impact on a person throughout the lifespan. Its Adaptive Information Processing theory hypothesizes that current difficulties are caused by disturbing memories that are inadequately processed, and that symptoms are reduced or eliminated altogether when these memories are processed to resolution using dual attention bilateral stimulation. The resolution of these targeted memories is hypothesized to result in memory reconsolidation. The standard application of EMDR therapy is comprised of eight phases and a three-pronged approach to identify and process: (a) Memories of past adverse life experiences that underlie present problems; (b) Present-day situations that elicit disturbance and maladaptive responses; and (c) Anticipatory future scenarios that require adaptive responses. There is strong empirical evidence for its use in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, and it has also been found to be an effective, transdiagnostic treatment approach for a wide range of diagnoses in a variety of contexts and treatment settings with diverse populations (Laliotis et al., 2021, p. 187).
Let’s break this down into more digestible chunks that emphasize key takeaway points. For starters, EMDR is a mode of therapy that assumes current symptoms are based on disturbing or traumatic memories that continue to impact us in many negative ways. This is the basic premise behind the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) theory that underlies EMDR.
These early disturbing or traumatic memories are considered “inadequately processed” when we continue to hold strong negative beliefs about ourselves that often encompass themes of safety, responsibility, or control. For example, the child abuse survivor may harbour beliefs of not being able to protect themselves or trust anyone, which can negatively affect their relationships presently and in the future.
Therapists assist individuals in accessing and processing these disturbing or traumatic memories by focusing on this “dual attention bilateral stimulation” process. Dual attention refers to simultaneously focusing our attention on both the past and the present, such that we bring up disturbing or traumatic memories while remaining grounded in the therapy space. This helps us to differentiate between the disturbing or traumatic memory network and our current situation, which helps facilitate new learning and promote safety and control while processing traumatic memories.
Bilateral stimulation refers to the eye movements that were previously mentioned. The bilateral part refers to side to side movement, like the way our eyes dart rapidly back and forth during REM sleep. This is hypothesized to facilitate information processing and memory reconsolidation, meaning that it helps us to recall traumatic memories and process them to a point of resolution. Beyond eye movements, bilateral stimulation can also include things such as tapping, audio tones, or tactile sensations (e.g., buzzers that are held in each hand).
Following sets of dual attention bilateral stimulation, individuals are asked to report on what they noticed, which will often involve a collection of observations, thoughts, feelings, and/or sensations that arise during processing. One of the benefits of EMDR therapy is that processing can move along without the individual sharing intricate details of what was experienced. Instead, the effectiveness of EMDR therapy relies on the healing capacity inherent to all of us, which is comparable to the way the body repairs a wound.
Symptom reduction or elimination is achieved through recognition of change in negative thoughts, emotions, and body sensations associated with the disturbing or traumatic memory networks being processed. EMDR therapy includes various metrics throughout the process to measure change, such as levels of distress, shifts in body sensations, and belief in empowering positive statements.
EMDR’s “three-pronged approach” refers to the focus being placed on not only processing disturbing or traumatic memories from our past, but also looking to current triggers and installing positive templates for acting in healthier and more empowering ways in the future. This allows for a comprehensive therapeutic approach that further helps to reduce the impact of symptoms in our present and future situations.
Research has consistently demonstrated lasting positive changes that result from EMDR work, particularly in the context of complex traumatic disorders such as PSTD. Further research and clinical applications have demonstrated EMDR’s effectiveness in treating anxiety disorders (e.g., panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder), mood disorders (e.g., major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder), prolonged grief, substance use disorders, chronic pain, and more.
Trained EMDR clinicians are necessary companions for safely and effectively undertaking this work. We can help you to access disturbing or traumatic memories in the safety of the therapy space while feeling grounded, connected, and on the path to healing and recovery.