EMDR was developed in the 1980’s by Francine Shapiro after a chance discovery that when she was recalling past trauma, rapidly moving her eyes back and forth seemed to quickly diminish her distress. Since then, its efficacy has been demonstrated in multiple outcome studies that discovered both a reduction of PTSD symptoms as well as changes in the brain following treatment.
In PTSD, memories fail to integrate properly because the typical system for encoded memories is temporarily deactivated by the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion. The bilateral stimulation of the brain in EMDR enables these memories to be processed and integrated properly, so they no longer remain as raw sensory impressions of the experience that make one feel as though they are reliving the event that has long passed. This process has been compared to the spontaneous processing that can sometimes occur during REM sleep.
In an EMDR session, clients are guided in recalling the specific sensory elements of their traumatic memory and are then exposed to bilateral stimulation, either in the form of the therapist’s finger moving back and forth, tapping of the knees, or tones played into each ear. Clients are instructed to notice their sensations and distress levels throughout the process until their distress diminishes. While clients may want to share the stories of what happened, this is not necessary for EMDR to be effective, making it a viable option for those who would prefer not to verbally relay their experience.
References: van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.
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