Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a mental health therapy developed in the late 1980s by California psychologist Francine Shapiro. It is used primarily in the treatment of patients who suffered traumatic events, such as rape, or are currently suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a common problem for soldiers returning from war. EMDR is a fairly new treatment and has not been wholly accepted by the metal health community. However, multiple studies, including those conducted by the US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), have shown that EMDR reduces PTSD symptoms in over 50% of patients.
When we experience a traumatic event, our normal psychological coping mechanisms may not be able to handle the thoughts and feelings that result and the memory of the event will be corrupted. Later on, when we remember the event, we will again be unable to adequately process the thoughts and feelings that ensue. Most patients report post-traumatic stress symptoms of anxiety, insomnia and nightmares The goal of EMDR is to help the patient properly process the memories and develop the appropriate coping mechanisms that were missing during the actual event. The next time the person remembers the event, she will react in more healthy ways. It is believed that eye movements result in changes that can help process old memories.
Traditional EMDR is broken into several steps, each one designed to deal with the memory from a past, present or future viewpoint. First, a therapist helps the patient to identify the traumatic event or events, in addition to the negative thoughts or feelings that it evokes. An image is designated to represent the traumatic event and the patient focuses her attention on it, and the ensuing negative feelings, for several seconds. The patient will then be asked to follow a moving object with her eyes and report what is going through her mind. Once the patient is no longer distressed, they can move on in the treatment plan. Since each patient is different, and some traumas are more serious than others, the number of sessions required to reach the point of desensitization will vary dramatically.
Opponents of EMDR argue that the eye movements have nothing to do with the success of the therapy. Instead, like with more traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, repeated exposure to upsetting stimuli typically results in a lessening of the negative reaction, whether they eyes are involved or not.
Although many may scoff at the notion that moving your eyes back and forth can have some magically eradicate painful memories, over sixty thousand therapists have participated in EMDR training, resulting in over two million EMDR patients. In fact, there is now an international association (EMDRIA), with members numbering in the thousands.