EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a therapeutic method initially developed for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Since it originated in the late 1980s EMDR has been developed and adapted to treat a variety of mental health issues. It is a technique combining free association with a bilateral stimulus, such as guided eye movements. Originally used with memories of traumatic events, EMDR can nowdays be applied to practically any distressing experience.

The underlying assumption of EMDR is that at the root of every psychological disturbance are adverse experiences which the nervous system was not able to integrate. These experiences do not have to be catastrophic; in the words of a prominent trauma expert Peter Levine, trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event.1 An event is traumatic when it overwhelms the individual‘s ability to cope with the experience.

Although such experiences are often „forgotten“, they remain stored in the nervous system in fragmentary form as isolated images, sensations, and the like. When something happens that is reminiscent of the original distressing event, the memory fragments are activated, often causing intense feelings, sensations or impulses far beyond what would be a reasonable reaction to the event. Such events are called triggers. Memory traces of traumatic experiences, triggered by often innocuous events, and the individual‘s reactions to them lie at the root of most difficulties that bring people into therapy.

A typical EMDR session starts by focusing on the experience to be worked on, with all of its relevant aspects: cognitive, emotional and sensory. The patient then follows the stream of free associations (thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses etc.), while attending to the bilateral stimulation, which usually involves eye movements, but can involve other kinds of sensory stimulation. The bilateral stimulation appears to help integrate contents stored in different areas of the brain (particularly in the right and left brain hemispheres), thus reducing automatic reactions to triggers and, consequently, the disturbing symptoms. EMDR‘s flexibility allows it to be used either as an additional tool in a conventional therapy, or as a therapeutic approach by itself, depending on each individual’s needs and preferences. Since EMDR relies less on talking than most other therapeutic approaches traumatic experiences can be processed without the need to describe them in detail, which is an important factor for many traumatized individuals.

Despite its recent origins, the effectiveness of EMDR has been demonstrated by research, so that it is now recognized and recommended by a number of mental health organizations, among them the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association and the UK Department of Health (see the web site of the EMDR Institute, http://www.emdr.com).

Suggestions for further reading:

Van der Kolk, B. (2015) The Body keeps the score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma.

Shapiro, F. (2013) Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy.

1 Levine, P. A. and Kline, M. (2012) Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, p. 4.