Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new and non-traditional type of psychotherapy. It is known for its ability to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is growing in popularity. PTSD typically occurs after traumatic, life-altering experiences such as car accidents, physical assault, rape, or military combat.

While research is ongoing, EMDR continues to be a controversial topic among many health care professionals. At first glance, the therapy may seem like it approaches psychological issues in a somewhat unusual way. After all, it doesn’t rely on medications or even talk therapy. Instead, EMDR utilizes a patient’s rapid, rhythmic movements of the eye, which diminish the power of the patient’s emotionally charged recollections of traumatic events that occurred in the past.

What Can Be Expected from EMDR?

As a general rule, treatment sessions can last as long as 90 minutes. The therapist will move his or her fingers from one side of your face to the other, while staying in front of the face so you can see them, and ask you to follow his or her fingers with only your eyes. Simultaneously, your therapist will ask you to recall a traumatic event, including body sensations and emotions that go along with the event.

At a gradual pace, the therapist will guide you into shifting your thoughts from those traumatic thoughts to far more pleasant ones. Depending on the therapist, he or she may use finger movements, toe tapping, or musical tones.

Some individuals that utilize the EMDR technique argue that it can weaken the overall effect of negative thoughts and emotions. Prior to and following each treatment, your therapist will ask you to rate (often from one to 10) your current level of distress. Ideally, the goal is that your disturbing memories becoming less distressing.

While the majority of EMDR research has examined its use in individuals with PTSD, the treatment has also been used on individuals with other psychological afflictions, such as those with anxiety, addictions, eating disorders and panic attacks.

How Effective Is EMDR?

Since the technique was developed in 1989 by Psychologist Francine Shapiro, there have been more than 20,000 different practitioners who have been trained to use the EMDR technique. Shapiro was enjoying a stroll through the woods when she noticed that her negative emotions were reduced when her eyes darted from one side to the other side. After research and testing it with her patients, she found similar positive effects.

The therapy appears to be safe, and there do not appear to be any known negative side effects. However, despite the fact that it is being used at an increasing rate, there are some mental health practitioners that debate the effectiveness of EMDR. Some critics say that the majority of EMDR studies involve a very small number of participants. In published studies, other researchers report the effectiveness of the treatment by using consolidated data from numerous studies.

What’s Recommended by the Guidelines?

Professional organizations recently issued guidelines that have boosted the overall credibility of EMDR. These guidelines help define who may find benefit from the treatment.

  • The American Psychiatric Association (APA) notes that the treatment is effective for treating acute and chronic PTSD symptoms. EMDR may be particularly beneficial for individuals who have difficulty speaking about traumatic events they have experienced. Guidelines note that additional research is required to determine whether improvements from the treatment can be sustained over an extended period of time.
  • The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) have come together to issue clinical practice guidelines, which strongly recommend that EMDR be used in the treatment for PTSD for individuals both in and out of the military. They also report that this treatment has shown to be just as effective as other psychological treatments in some studies, yet less effective in other studies.

How Exactly Does EMDR Work?

Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer on this. Even the supporters of EMDR have yet to agree on how this particular form of therapy works. Currently, there are only theories. Ultimately, by inducing the recollection of traumatic events and redirecting a patient’s attention from their emotions, EMDR sort of “borrows” fundamentals from prolonged exposure therapy (used with PTSD). There are some therapists who believe that this new treatment is able to reduce anxiety, which permits patients the ability to take better control of their disturbing thoughts. There are some that say no one understands EMDR therapy quite yet and how it works, including the American Psychological Association (APA) who says the treatment needs to be studied further to understand it.

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