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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

What does it TREAT | What to EXPECT | How to DECIDE

"It appears that within each of us there is an information-processing system that is designed to process upsetting events so that we can maintain a state of mental health. When something unpleasant happens, we think about it, talk about it, and dream about it until it doesn't bother us anymore. At this stage, we can say it has arrived at an 'adaptive resolution.' We have learned whatever was useful about the experience (such as the danger of walking in dark alleys) and stored it in our brain with the appropriate emotion so that it can guide us in the future. We have also discarded what is useless, such as the negative emotions, physical sensations, and self-beliefs that stemmed from the event.

"When something traumatic happens to us, however, this innate processing system can break down. Our perceptions of the terrible event (what we saw, heard, felt, and so on) may be stuck in our nervous system in the same form as when we experienced them. These unprocessed perceptions can be expressed as the nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts of PTSD. In EMDR we ask the person to think of the traumatic event, and then we stimulate the person's information-processing system so that the traumatic experience can be appropriately processed, or 'digested.' As this 'digestion' process takes place, insights arise, the needed associations are made, whatever is useful is learned, and the appropriate emotions take over."

(From Shapiro, Francine and Forrest, Margot, EMDR: The Breakthough “Eye Movement” Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma, 1997,pp. 28-29.)


EMDR is a therapeutic strategy for working through traumatic memories or other disturbing material. It tends to be intensive and to promote rather rapid processing of the traumatic material to a more highly adaptive level. The more highly adaptive thoughts and emotions about the material then allow the person to experience a sense of relief from previously intrusive feelings and thoughts about the disturbing event.

EMDR therapy involves left-right eye movements (or sometimes other methods of bilateral stimulation), with the patient tracking the path of the therapist's fingers, or a wand, light, or computerized figure, while the patient simultaneously evokes images surrounding a traumatic memory. EMDR appears to allow patients to voluntarily retrieve traumatic material that previously may have been dissociated; reduces involuntary reliving of the traumatic event; and, desensitizes patients to the traumatic material through cognitive restructuring techniques. The patient and EMDR therapist follow a standard protocol which allows for the processing of past, present and future material.


What does EMDR treat?

EMDR was developed to treat traumatic experiences such as violence or assault, childhood abuse, grave injury or illness, loss of a loved one, terrifying events such as 9/11 or the Oklahoma bombings, fire, car accident, or any event that the patient experienced being or anticipates being very scary or painful. Treatment should only be provided by a mental health professional with specialized training and supervision in the method.


What should I expect in treatment with EMDR?

Treatment usually begins with thorough history about you as well as your current experience with the memory or event. Your therapist will also be assessing to determine the appropriateness of using EMDR with you. Although EMDR is a safe, non-drug, interactive way of treating trauma, there may be compelling reasons for not using it right away or at all with you or when another therapy would serve you better.

You should plan on the initial assessment phase taking one to three sessions, maybe longer if there are many complicating factors.

After the assessment phase, your therapist will interview you closely to identify specific target memories for therapy. For each target, your emotions around it, body sensations, and negative self-conclusions/cognitions are identified. You and your therapist will also formulate a more highly logical and adaptive self-conclusion/cognition that will be used in the final stage of the treatment segment. You will be asked to rate your emotions throughout the treatment segment as a way to determine progress. Sessions last anywhere from 50 to 90 minutes, with the longer sessions often being of greater benefit, allowing for completed processing of a target.

It is important to note that as traumatic memories are dealt with, additional memories may surface, and may be related to the targeted memory or not. Processing continues until all material around the target is neutralized or no longer disturbing.


How can I decide if EMDR is what I need?

  • Call or visit with Dr. Maurer directly about your current or past experiences.
  • Visit the EMDR Institute, EMDR International Association, and EMDR Resource Cooperative websites:
  • Read about EMDR in the book by Shapiro and Forrest, referenced earlier. Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. is the developer of EMDR, and the fascinating story of her discovery is elsewhere on this website as well as in this book.

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