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EMDR:  Treatment Option for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Patty Pheil M.S.W.

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a new controversial form of therapy. It was developed by Francine Shapiro Ph.D., in 1987. Dr. Shapiro was in a park and was thinking about some unpleasant memories. She noticed that when she moved her eyes back and forth that the intensity of the negative emotions of these unpleasant memories seemed to dissipate. This incident was followed by intense studies and in 1989, Dr. Shapiro reported that she was having success using EMDR to treat trauma.

In fact, Dr. Shapiro and many other therapists trained in using EMDR state that only a few sessions of this form of treatment can do what man months of traditional talk therapy can do if that. In fact, some mental health clinicians do not feel that traditional talk therapy assists with treating trauma.

So what really is EMDR and how does it work? During EMDR sessions, the therapist asks the client to think about a traumatic event and at the same time, move their eyes rapidly - following the movement of a pencil or a finger by the therapist. What is happening during this process and why this seems to work is still unknown. However there are some theories.

It has been learned that painful or traumatic experiences are stored in a different place in the brain than are pleasant or neutral ones. Normally we work through these negative experiences by talking about it, dreaming about it, etc. We are able to put it behind us.

However many traumatic experiences seem to be "stuck" in the brain. Even after years of talk therapy, the intensity of painful feelings about a particular trauma could remain the same without change. Some people feel that EMDR is able to "un-stick" these experiences so that it reconnects with the healthy brain and then is reprocessed and integrated at an accelerated speed. 

The theory is that the rapid eye movement in EMDR creates similar brain activity to REM (rapid eye movement) that we experience during sleep. This REM assists us in processing ideas and resolves conflicts. We are able to work through things. We still retain the memory but without the emotional pain and the feelings of smell, taste, etc. of the event. 

A number of scientific studies have shown EMDR to be effective. The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology published by Wilson, Becker, and Tinker in December, 1995 studied 80 subjects with PTSD using EMDR treatment. The study appeared to show that the subjects improved significantly with this form of treatment and further study showed that this improvement was seen for at least 15 months later. 

Many other similar studies of EMDR have been done showing that EMDR is highly effective and the results are long lasting. I encourage you to check out these studies at where you will also be able to write or call and ask for therapists trained in EMDR in your area.

EMDR does not just treat trauma patients. Clinicians have noted success with this treatment in these areas: 

  • PTSD
  • Panic attacks 
  • Addictions 
  • Dissociative disorders 
  • Disturbing memories 
  • Anxiety disorders 
  • Phobias 
  • Performance anxiety 
  • Stress reduction 
  • Complicated grief 
  • Sexual and/or physical abuse

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