Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
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. Its
as if the event is frozen in time. When you recall a traumatic
event its 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, Im
helpless, I deserved it, or Im 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 its 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
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.