EMDR: What it is and why it works

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was first developed accidentally by Dr. Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, when she was walking in a park, thinking about something distressing, and moving her eyes back and forth viewing the landscape in front of her. When she realized that her distress was decreasing the longer she did eye movements, she decided to conduct studies to see if it worked for others as well. Turns out, it did, and EMDR was born!

Over the past 30 years, mountains of research has been conducted to prove the efficacy of EMDR on different populations. Many people know it as an evidence-based treatment for trauma, as it has been used among veterans returning from war and people who have experienced sexual violence or abuse. It is an incredibly effective treatment for symptoms of PTSD, and it can also be used to help people recover from addiction and eating disorders, depression and anxiety, OCD and phobias, attachment wounds and dysfunctional relationship dynamics, and so much more.

It may seem too good to be true, but let’s look at how it actually works. EMDR utilizes the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which posits that maladaptively stored memories lead to maladaptive and disruptive thoughts and behaviors in the present because they are disconnected from adaptive memory networks. By reprocessing the memories that are maladaptively stored, we grant them access to adaptive information, allowing us to react to present stimuli without the past hijacking us. Throughout your EMDR journey, you will frequently discuss past-present connections, which is the AIP model at work and helps create a map of what past experiences are leading to current dysfunction and what you would like to look different in the future.

On a neurobiological level, EMDR utilizes bilateral stimulation, which means movements that cross the body’s midline. This typically means moving your eyes back and forth or tapping alternately between both arms or both legs. It can also mean the use of sound that alternates from being heard in one ear and then the other, or holding buzzers that alternate between your right and left hands. Bilateral stimulation activates the same part of your brain as REM sleep does, which allows memories to move from the limbic (emotional) brain to the cortical (logical) brain. It also requires you to tax your working memory, which helps create a dual awareness during reprocessing between past experiences and the present. This is critical in EMDR, as the entire goal is to look at current issues, connect them to past experiences and reprocess them in order to change the present. 

One key mechanism of change with EMDR is that it separates associations between maladaptively stored memories and current dysfunctional patterns before creating new associations based on adaptive information, thus allowing a change in thoughts and behaviors. For example, if someone learned early on that they are not good enough because their father hit them every time they made a mistake, they might struggle to feel secure in relationships now or be highly perfectionistic at work, to the point where they are missing deadlines because they are so critical of their final product. EMDR would allow for them to hold a memory of their father hitting them while being aware of their emotions and physical sensations in the present, and, by using bilateral stimulation, shift their perspective from “I’m not good enough” to “I am good enough.” As this generalizes and more memories are worked on, they may start to notice themselves developing more self-compassion, thus helping at work, and more openness in relationships that allows for vulnerability and connection.

Now that we know why it works, the next blog post will look at what an EMDR session actually looks like, as it looks and feels much different than traditional talk therapy.

For more information on EMDR and why it works, visit the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) – https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/.