Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of conditions, including PTSD, anxiety, and depression. The therapy involves having the patient recall a traumatic event while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation, such as watching a moving light or hearing alternating sounds in each ear. In case you are wondering I have a an EMDR machine that I utilize with clients in a face-to-face situation.  The machine is capable of simultaneously providing multiple forms of bilateral stimulation – audio, visual, tactile.  If I am working with a client via Zoom or Skype, then I use audio stimulation via an audio file.  There does not seem to be a difference between using EMDR in person or online as both give good results.

The process often involved in EMDR is to ask a client to focus on an event or something they would like to work on. Typically, this is something which has been troubling in their lives.  As the client focuses on the event, they are also instructed to pay attention to any thoughts, feelings, or memories that surface. The theory behind EMDR is that the bilateral stimulation helps to move memories from the short-term to long-term storage areas of the brain, where they can be better processed and integrated. Additionally, it is thought that the stimulus helps to override the body’s “fight or flight” or “freeze” response, allowing the patient to process the event in a more constructive way.

EMDR shares commonalities with systematic desensitization. Systematic desensitization is a form of behaviour therapy that was first developed by Joseph Wolpe in the 1950s. The basic idea behind systematic desensitization is to gradually exposure a person to the thing that they are afraid of, in a controlled and safe environment. Over time, the person should become less and less afraid of the thing that they are exposure to. Systematic desensitization has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of fears and phobias, including fear of heights, fear of flying, and fear of spiders.

Similarly, EMDR is frequently utilized to expose a client to some traumatic incident – in a safe and supportive manner. Part of healing from trauma is to help regulate the central nervous system (CNS). EMDR can be useful in this regard because it can help teach a person to elicit a relaxation response in place of a flight/fight/freeze/fawn response. It is a way to help the CNS become unstuck, which in turn helps memories, patterns, and behaviour’s to be reprocessed into more beneficial outcomes. EMDR has been shown to be particularly effective in helping people who have experienced PTSD. EMDR therapy can help people to process their trauma in a healthier way, and it can also help to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.

EMDR is not limited to trauma work even though it excels in that area.  It can be used to treat:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Poor Sleep
  • Work Performance
  • Emotional Distress
  • Pain Tolerance
  • Panic Attacks
  • Self-Improvement/Growth

By no means is this a comprehensive list but hopefully it does give an indication of some of the utility of EMDR. By the same token Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is not a panacea.  Just like meditation does not work for everyone, EMDR can also not work with some clients.

Depending upon how a clinician utilizes EMDR it can be utilized with an ordinary state of consciousness or an altered state of consciousness.  My preference is to employ it within an altered state of consciousness as the bilateral stimulation lends itself to this paradigm.  In this regard it is a little like hypnosis or deep meditation, except that instead of always aiming for a relaxed state of being, the EMDR process involves alternating between relaxation and tension/disturbance.

One of the hallmarks of EMDR is that a client does not have to talk a lot as is the case with traditionally talk therapy.  While they may be asked to describe what they are experiencing, often they are asked to go with that experience.  In this respect it is closer to mindfulness than talk therapy. The emphasis moves from analysis to attempting to reintegrate the experience in a new light.  This does not mean that the client is given no room to talk or process, it’s just that the emphasis is a little different to talk therapy.

It also has an emphasis on the somatic particularly in what is termed the body scan portion of EMDR.  In this phase the client is asked to scan their body for signs of physical tension or physiological markers (e.g., rapid breathing).  Once a client is able to have a relaxed physical state while recalling the trauma or troubled area then that typically results in the trauma/disturbance as healed.

Another aspect is how a client’s beliefs can be changed while undergoing EMDR therapy.  A client might start with the belief that they are hopeless, but end with a belief that they are strong and capable.  This is not markedly different from traditional forms of psychotherapy where similar forms of improvements are expected.  Perhaps the difference being in the amount of time spent to implement the change.

EMDR is a relatively new therapy, but it shows promise as an effective treatment for a variety of psychological conditions.  Hopefully as more research into this interesting modality is performed the specific healing mechanisms of EMDR will be clearer.  At the moment there are some good theories as to why it works, but the theories need some experimental data to back them up.