What is EMDR?

It is a system of therapy that helps desensitize past traumatic events.

EMDR was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987, who noticed that while walking down a boulevard, looking right and left at the trees, she was able to reduce the intensity of some disturbing thoughts that she was experiencing. She went on to study this effect and do research on the technique that she subsequently developed. She reported her successful treatment of trauma victims in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, in 1989. Since that time, it has been well researched and used by therapists all over the world.

How does it work?

It is not known exactly how EMDR works, but there are a number of theories about this. We know that when someone is extremely upset, the brain does not process incoming information or make decisions as usual. People often feel that they 'freeze' or panic. Sometimes they just feel the feelings, but can't make logical decisions about what to do. Or, they might act in an automatic, almost robotic, way to deal with the situation, but find that they do not experience their feelings.

EMDR seems to allow the person to remember, but not to re-experience the distress, in a safe environment, allowing them to view it and process it more calmly.

It may function in the same way that sleep does - in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, our eyes go back and forth. We often find that a difficult decision can be made more clearly after we 'sleep on it'.

It may assist the left and right sides of the brain to communicate about, and thus process, trauma.

Having past trauma is like having a very messy drawer - clothes jump out at you when it is opened a crack. EMDR seems to neatly press and fold the clothes, so that they now fit in the drawer and it can be opened when the person chooses to do so - they don't jump out unbidden.

The process of this therapy:

One or two sessions are usually needed to assess the situation and make sure that EMDR is the appropriate treatment. It is difficult to say exactly how many sessions will be needed, as it depends on the type of trauma, and the client's previous experience. Many clients take 3 to 10 sessions of EMDR to clear the trauma, but it may also be used with other forms of 'talk therapy' and skill building strategies. For more complex problems, the therapy takes longer.

About the EMDR session:

The therapist and client decide what will be the focus of the session. They determine the details of the disturbance - what was seen, felt, heard etc. - and what beliefs the client still holds about themselves related to this event. Then the desensitization is started using bilateral stimulation - either using eye movements, sound (back and forth between the ears), or alternate tapping on the back of the clients' hands. The client focuses on the event and notices what comes to mind. The trauma is reprocessed in the client's own unique way, based on their values and experiences. There is no right or wrong way for clients to do this. Eventually, the memory is less disturbing and the person comes to change the negative belief that they held about themselves. Throughout the session, strong emotions may come up, but at the end of the session, most people say they feel much less distressed.

Does it work?

Many studies have shown that it is an effective technique - for example, the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, December, 1995, published research by Wilson, Becker and Tinker showing successful treatment of 80 subjects with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Further research can be found on the EMDRIA website.

EMDRIA is a non-profit international organization whose primary objective is to 'establish, maintain, and promote the highest standards of excellence and integrity in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing practice, research and education'.

What problems does EMDR treat?

EMDR relieves many kinds of psychological distress:

  • Post Traumatic Stress
  • Panic attacks
  • Performance Anxiety
  • Phobias
  • Complicated Grief
  • Stress Reduction
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Addictions
  • Past sexual & / or physical abuse
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Disturbing memories

Who can become an EMDR clinician?

Therapists with a Masters level or higher take part one and part two training from an accredited EMDRIA trainer. This includes post training group consultation prior to completion. For therapists interested in taking the training, please go to where you can find out more about the training by Ms. Barbara Horne, and a schedule of upcoming training sessions.