Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

By Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.

EMDR is a powerful new method of therapy that was developed in 1989 by psychologist, Francine Shapiro. It was originally designed to treat traumatic stress. However, it has evolved over time and is currently applicable to a wide variety of psychological issues.

When a person is very upset as in a traumatic experience, the brain does not process information in the normal way. It’s as if the event is “frozen in time.” When you recall a traumatic event it’s as if it were being lived in the present. In fact, untreated traumatized individuals tend to go through life in a heightened state of alertness. This is called hyperarousal. Traumatic experiences tend to shade the way a person views the world and the way he/she relates to people.

For many, EMDR can be a powerful and effective way of processing painful memories or other strong emotions. It is an important addition to other types of psychotherapies.

Utilizing eye movements, painful memories and feelings are processed and neutralized much faster than with traditional therapy allowing these memories to be more readily tolerated. EMDR can evoke strong and unpleasant emotions and/or body sensations. These emotions and sensations are normal and transient. Once processed, they become neutralized. After the work is complete the memory is no longer painful. The individual is left with a sense of empowerment and increased self-esteem.

A session is conducted in the following manner: The client is asked to visually recall the most upsetting memory of a traumatic experience. In a single incident traumatic event, it would be the most disturbing moment of the incident. In chronic trauma such as childhood abuse, it would be a particularly disturbing memory of the abuse. When a client works on one incident among many, he/she is actually working on all of them because there is a similarity in the experience and there is a generalizing effect in the EMDR work. Next, the client is asked to think of a negative thought about himself/herself that is connected to the memory. It is common for a person to hold a negative thought about himself/herself, such as, “I’m helpless,” “I deserved it,” or “I’m not good enough,” when recalling a traumatic event. This is called a “cognitive distortion.” Once the particular distorted thought is discovered, the client is asked to think of a more empowering, positive thought that they would rather believe about themself if they could. Initially, the positive thought would probably feel very "untrue". The desired positive thought and it’s level of truth for the client is noted by the EMDR Therapist for later use.

The client is then asked to visualize the traumatic memory and think the negative thought and to state what emotions come up and how disturbing they feel. The therapist asks the client to rate the level of disturbance on a scale of one to ten. A set of eye movements is done and the client is asked what comes up. It might be a thought about the memory or another memory. It might be an emotion or a physical sensation. Whatever it is, the client is asked to focus on it and another set of eye movements is done. This is repeated until the level of disturbance of the original picture and negative thought are significantly reduced or eliminated. At that point, the client is asked to see the picture and think the desired positive thought and to state how true it feels. Usually there is an increased level of truth to the positive thought. Sets of eye movements are done until the thought feels very true. Often, there are additional, more sophisticated techniques used; however, the purpose of this article is to give the reader a general idea of what a basic EMDR session is like.

Clients usually notice changes in their lives for the better as they get to the conclusion of an EMDR scenario. Many clients report a sense of relief, as if a weight has been lifted. Self-esteem often improves and a sense of well being not previously experienced is generally felt.

For individuals interested in engaging in EMDR therapy, it is crucial to work with a therapist who is certified by the EMDR International Association (www.emdria.org) telephone (512) 451-5200.

© 2000 Martin V. Cohen, Ph.D.

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