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What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a non-invasive, evidence-based method of psychotherapy that helps victims recover from the effects of psychological trauma through adaptive information processing. EMDR therapy is an eight-phase trauma treatment that comprehensively identifies and addresses experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural resilience or coping capacity, thereby generating traumatic symptoms and/or harmful coping strategies. Through EMDR therapy, patients are able to reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive.

Developed in the late 1980’s by Francine Shapiro, PhD., EMDR was originally used as a successful therapy to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Clinical research has validated EMDR therapy is applicable for a wide range of psychological problems that result from overwhelming life experiences, such as enduring a natural or man-made disaster.  During this trauma treatment, patients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution.

Description of an EMDR Therapy Session

In a typical EMDR session, the therapist leads a patient in a series of lateral eye movements while the patient simultaneously focuses on various aspects of a disturbing memory.  The left – right eye movements in EMDR therapy are a form of “bilateral stimulation”.  Other forms of bilateral stimulation used by EMDR therapists include alternating bilateral sound using headphones and alternating tactile simulation using a handheld device that vibrates or taps to the back of the patient’s hands.  After successful treatment with EMDR, affective distress is relieved, negative beliefs are reformulated, and physiological arousal associated with stress is reduced.

More than a set of “techniques”, the EMDR approach provides a model for understanding human potential, including how positive experiences support adaptive living, or psychological health, and how upsetting experiences can sometimes lead to psychological problems that interfere with a person’s ability to meet life challenges. The EMDR protocol guides clinicians in careful assessment and preparation work, particularly for persons with histories of multiple traumas.  

The procedures have been refined and validated through controlled research at several centers around the world.  Precise and careful use of these procedures can lead to a safe processing of memories, such that the negative thoughts and emotions disappear.

 “EMDR is one of the most powerful tools I’ve encountered for treating posttraumatic stress. In the hands of a competent and compassionate therapist, it gives people the means to heal themselves.”

Steven Silver, Ph.D.
Former director of the PTSD  Unit,
Veterans Administration Medical Center,
Coatesville, Pennsylvania

“We believe that EMDR induces a fundamental change in brain circuitry similar to what happens in REM sleep — that allows the person undergoing treatment to more effectively process and incorporate traumatic memories into general association networks in the brain. This helps the individual integrate and understand the memories within the larger context of his or her life experience.”

Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School

“EMDR quickly opens new windows on reality, allowing people to see solutions within themselves that they never knew were there. And it’s a therapy where the client is very much in charge, which can be particularly meaningful when people are recovering from having their power taken away by abuse and violation.”

Laura S. Brown, Ph.D.
Past Recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Public Service


Adaptive Information Processing

The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model reveals that health is supported by positive and successful experiences that increasingly prepare a person to handle new challenges and that the brain is equipped to manage and process adversity.

Many factors converge to inhibit the body’s natural knowledge of how to heal. The AIP model guides a clinician’s use of EMDR procedures so that the person’s own brain can complete the processing of difficult memories. This results in the reduction of suffering and symptoms and the development of new coping skills that can support psychological health.


Finding an EMDR Clinician

Trauma Recovery/HAP does not make referrals for psychotherapy. The following websites help individuals locate a therapist by geography, specialty area or level of training: EMDR International Association: www.emdria.org, or the EMDR Institute, www.emdr.com.


Research Findings

Research on EMDR is ongoing. Trauma Recovery/HAP provides a periodically updated bibliography of Research Findings.  Additional information on trauma, EMDR practice and history can be found in numerous books and monographs.  A growing collection of research and other materials is available at the Francine Shapiro Library.