What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)?
Updated: May 21
The conversation around mental health is growing and more people are becoming aware of its important role in our lives and wellbeing. For many of those people, they are discovering the full scope and availability of different treatments for the first time – and at last feeling hope that they can overcome mental conditions and past trauma in order to live fulfilling lives.
One of those treatments, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), is helping people with clinical conditions like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and panic attacks. Bridging the gap between our physical body and our neurological processing, this innovative approach to rehabilitation and therapy has been used for decades, with constant refinement and continuous improvement.
Where was EMDR developed?
EMDR was born out of the research of the American psychologist and educator Francine Shapiro, who began to explore the connection between rapid visual movement and an associated reduction of negative thoughts and memories in the late 1980s. After she published a book with her studies in 1995, the technique was initially used for treating PTSD, but it soon gained a strong following and branched out to new applications. It is now recommended as an effective treatment for many conditions with associated negative thought patterns.
How EMDR works
At the core, EMDR is about addressing traumatic or distressing memories, feelings, sensations, and thoughts, and reconceptualizing them into less negative forms. Through its eight steps, it can loosen “stuck” memories, upon which someone may have dwelled for years, and help people move past traumatic incidents and regain more control over their thoughts and emotions.
This process is done through rapid eye movements, or other forms of bilateral stimulation (i.e., stimuli on both sides of the head) such as tapping or pulsing. This rapid, two-sided sensory input mimics the movements of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the phase of rest when memories are processed and solidified. Due to this, the eye movements of EMDR allow our brains to communicate differently between the left and right hemispheres than is usually possible while we are awake. Unprocessed, frozen, or otherwise negative memories and thoughts can be shifted, creating a new perception of them that is less distressing.
EMDR supports the brain’s natural methods of recovering from traumatic or stressful situations, and the approach enables further healing to occur while reducing the original stress response. It is often used alongside regular talk therapy, and this safe, holistic approach causes the brain and nervous system to move forward together, removing the mental blocks that often present with conditions like PTSD or extreme anxiety.
Is EMDR safe?
EMDR is a well-researched and systematic approach, performed by a trained professional therapist. As with any treatment that attempts to work through past trauma and lived experiences, there can be discomfort and difficulty, but – again, as with any professional treatment – the client is never dealing with it alone, and has complete control of the process. Thus, EMDR is very safe to use in clinical settings.
Is EMDR Right For Me?
Part of the appeal of EMDR to so many psychologists is that it has been refined and researched to a high degree, making it broadly applicable to many situations. It can be used to support children, adolescents, and adults of all ages, and has been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, depression, grief, migraines, PTSD, and even sleep disturbances. If you have struggled with past trauma or stress disorders, it may be an option for you.
Can I do Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing on my own?
As simple as it may seem, EMDR is a clinical process that took years to develop – and as a mental health intervention, it should only be offered by trained and properly licensed mental health practitioners. We advise against trying to use the techniques on your own, as recalling past trauma without a supportive therapy expert to guide you can be more harmful than it is healing.
With that said, there are some EMDR apps that therapists can recommend for home use. The important thing is that the apps are verified and their usage is explained by a licensed mental health professional before you start using them, ensuring that you can stay safe and get the best outcomes. The apps should be used to support ongoing EMDR treatment, rather than to replace it entirely.
If you are curious about EMDR and want to learn more about how it can help people suffering with a variety of mental health conditions, let us know and we can guide you in the right direction with expert medical advice. And remember, there is nothing wrong with admitting you need help – in fact, it shows that you are on the right path and choosing the way to healing and hope.