Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Dr. David L. Kupfer, Ph.D.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., is a technique that has proven effective in helping people overcome a variety of psychological disorders. Originally used with clients suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it has also been used successfully with anxiety, depression, and dissociative disorders. It brings together known techniques of psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy, and adds the new element of eye movements to help clients put traumatic events behind them.

An EMDR session may begin with the therapist interviewing the client about a traumatic event or disturbing symptom that they have experienced. The client is asked to describe the event or symptom, generate a visual image that goes with it, describe any negative beliefs that may have been learned in connection with past trauma, and describe a positive belief that they would like to learn. Desensitization, the process of reducing the anxiety or distress that may have arisen from the traumatic event, happens as the client imagines the event in the safe setting of the therapist’s office. The rapid repetitive eye movements may help speed the desensitization process by stimulating the natural healing process of the brain. It is possible that the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep is our brain’s natural way of healing from the stressful parts of our day. When we have an overload of stress from a traumatic event, we might need a technique such as EMDR as a booster shot of healing. With the help of the eye movements, clients can unlearn the negative beliefs, and adopt the positive beliefs that they wish to have.

For example, a police officer might enter therapy having been traumatized by an event in which he witnessed a colleague being shot. He may have filed this incident under the category “It’s my fault,” a negative belief that may be linked to beliefs he has held since childhood. EMDR could help him reduce his anxiety about being in situations similar to the one in which the traumatic event occurred. The technique might also aid him in shifting the incident out of the “It’s my fault” category and into one labeled “I did the best I could and life goes on.”

EMDR is based on the notion that traumatic events can get stored in our brain in a manner that leaves them emotionally locked and disturbing us in an ongoing manner. The technique now has many years of research demonstrating its effectiveness in releasing bad memories, reducing anxiety, and overcoming depression.