In 1987, while walking in a park, Dr. Francine Shapiro made a chance observation. She noticed that the intensity of her disturbing thoughts and feelings reduced after her eyes had been moving rapidly back and forth. Being a student of psychology and a naturally curious person she decided to research this for her doctoral thesis. She found a way to use rapid eye movements in a special psychotherapy protocol, and discovered it was very successful in relieving chronic distress in victims of trauma. By 1989, Shapiro had developed a totally new kind of psychotherapy: EMDR therapy.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a new psychotherapy used to treat troubling symptoms, such as anxiety, guilt, anger, depression, panic, sleep disturbance, and flashbacks, that are the result of traumatic experiences. Traditional therapies have met with limited success in treating victims of trauma. Not only has EMDR therapy been proven effective in reducing the chronic symptoms which follow trauma, the therapy benefits appear to be permanent. Since Dr. Shapiro’s first published research study in 1989, EMDR has developed and evolved through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world. It now incorporates elements from many different treatment approaches. To date, it has helped an estimated half million people of all ages receive relief from many different kinds of psychological distress.

What does EMDR stand for?

  • Eye Movement. Much has been learned about this therapy since the day it was named for eye movements. Now it appears that the beneficial effects are facilitated by an alternating stimulation of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Eye movements accomplish this, as do bilateral alternating taps or tones.
  • Desensitization. refers to the removal of the emotional disturbance associated with a traumatic memory.
  • Reprocessing. refers to the replacement of the unhealthy, negative beliefs associated with

When is EMDR appropriate?

There are two types of trauma, big “T” trauma and little “t” trauma. Big “T” traumas are the major horrific events, like combat, rape, or the loss of a child. Little “t” traumas are the smaller everyday chronic horrors, like daily negative childhood messages leading a girl to grow up believing she will never be good enough. EMDR can help heal both types of trauma. EMDR therapy can be a very intense emotional experience, temporarily. It is not appropriate for those who are unwilling or unable to tolerate highly disturbing emotions. An EMDR therapist must take a thorough history to determine if and how EMDR can be used as part of an overall treatment plan. EMDR has been successfully used to treat many problems.

Some of them include:

  • PTSD
  • Complicated grief
  • Anxiety
  • Sexual abuse
  • Depression
  • Panic attacks
  • Phobias
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Addictions
  • Performance anxiety

How long does EMDR therapy take?

This depends on several factors including the nature of the problem being treated, the client’s history, and the client’s ability to tolerate high levels of disturbance. In some cases, one EMDR treatment session is enough. Usually it takes weeks to months, but sometimes years of treatment are required. When EMDR therapy is used appropriately, it can significantly shorten the overall length of time in therapy.

What is an EMDR session like?

First, client and therapist work together to collect basic information about the traumatic experience. The most disturbing part of the incident is identified and becomes the processing target. Example: Image of the rapist’s face. The negative belief connected to the trauma is identified. Example: I’ll never get over this. And a preferred, positive belief is named. Example: It’s over, I can move on with my life now. Next, client is asked to rate (on a 1-7 scale) how true the positive belief feels when paired with the target. Usually it does not feel very true at this point. Client is asked to name the emotions the target elicits, to rate the associated distress level (on a 0-10 scale), and to locate the disturbance in the body. Example: Fear and shame, with disturbance level 10, in belly and chest. Then, client is asked to hold in awareness the target, the negative belief, and the disturbing body sensations. At the same time, the therapist guides the client’s eyes to move rapidly back and forth. This is done in sets, which may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. During each set the client is instructed to just notice whatever changes occur in mind and body, without controlling the experience in any way. Very often, in the first few sets there is an increase in the disturbance level. After awhile, with each new set, the target becomes less and less disturbing and the positive belief feels more and more true. The target is completely processed when recall of the image no longer brings up disturbing emotions, and the preferred positive belief feels totally true. Example: Client recalls that the rapist’s face was threatening then but does not feel threatened by the image anymore.

To find out more about EMDR, you can visit the EMDR International Association website.

Excerpt from: What is EMDR?, TheraLife Center, retrieved 10 September 2017,