Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a relatively recent addition to the therapy world, the rudiments of the method having been originally discovered by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.in 1987 as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorders. Through a process of experimentation, training and fertile contact between many EMDR therapists, the method has been refined and expanded so that many types of therapy can be integrated with it.

The main technique when used for trauma is bi-lateral stimulation while the client is focused sensorially , emotionally and cognitively on some aspect of the trauma. The bi-lateral stimulation can be visual (a pointer, the therapist's fingers or a specially constructed light bar), auditory (the client hears tones projected through ear phones back and forth, from one ear to another) or tactile (the therapist alternates taps on the client's hands or the client holds two small paddles, through which a slight buzz is transmitted, from one hand to the other).

EMDR is based on the recognition that the human nervous system is a wonderful information-processing apparatus.

Ordinarily, negative events that occur to a person are processed by the nervous system so that there is a resolution of the situations and the events can recede into past memory. But often, when something traumatic happens, the events get locked into the nervous system with the original visual images, sounds, thoughts and feelings. The traumatic event can be a serious accident; being the victim of or the witness to violence; being faced with a life-threatening illness; childhood sexual or physical abuse; or severe neglect. Or it can be the cumulative effects of continual but undramatic events, such as constant parental criticism or inconsistency, bullying by an older sibling, school difficulties caused by learning disorders, or being scapegoated because of some physical trait that makes them different from other children.

In individuals who have unprocessed trauma locked into their nervous system, even a minor aspect of the original trauma that occurs in the present can trigger all of the negative feelings, images and negative thoughts (perhaps experienced as flashbacks).

For example, an ex-client of mine was sexually abused as a young child by a large, blond man. As an adult, forty years later, she became panicky and had to escape every time she saw a large blond man.

The result of unresolved trauma can be chronic anxiety, panic attacks, sleeplessness, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, difficulties in relating satisfactorily to others, and poor job performance.


EMDR therapy with traumatized persons kick-starts their brains into an accelerated natural healing process that allows the traumatic memories to recede into the past and no longer have an emotional "charge" to them. Their brains are then able to place the events into a realistic perspective and they realize they are no longer in danger or suffer from the past experiences.

EMDR has been very useful for the resolution of many types of traumatic events: natural disasters; job-related trauma; childhood sexual and physical abuse and neglect; war experiences; rape; etc. I successfully treated Ellie, a survivor of the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing, with the use of EMDR in only four sessions. This young woman had gone to New York City as part of her work and experienced the absolute worst of the events at ground zero.

While EMDR can work very quickly in clearing the effects of trauma, the time of treatment can vary considerably and is better suited to some clients than others. The therapist can assess when it can best be used and with whom.

The practice of EMDR has been adapted and expanded for other uses beyond trauma work, such as the development of inner strengths and resources, the treatment of addictions and eating disorders, and performance enhancement. Very positive results have been achieved, for example, in improving the skills of actors, artists, athletes and public speakers via the use of EMDR.

EMDR clients usually are seen on a once-a-week schedule for 45 to 90-minute sessions. If the client is dealing with severe trauma, the sessions may be longer.

Ellie’s EMDR Story