What is EMDR? The short answer....

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy that was developed to resolve symptoms resulting from disturbing and unresolved life experiences. It uses a structured approach to address past, present, and future aspects of disturbing memories. The approach was developed by Francine Shapiro, PhD, to resolve the development of trauma-related disorders as resulting from exposure to a traumatic or distressing event. Although some clinicians may use EMDR for various problems, its research support is primarily for disorders stemming from distressing life experiences.

When a trauma occurs it seems to get locked in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts and feelings. The eye movements or other bilateral stimulation we use in EMDR seem to unlock the nervous system and allow the mind and body to process the experience. That may be what is happening in REM or dream sleep--the eye movements help to process the unconscious material. It is important to remember that it is your own brain that will be doing the healing, and that you are the one in control.

 Theoretical basis

EMDR integrates elements of imaginal exposure, cognitive therapy, psychodynamic and somatic therapies. It also uses the unique element of bilateral stimulation (e.g. moving the eyes back and forth, or alternating tones or taps). According to Francine Shapiro's theory, when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it may overwhelm usual ways of coping and the memory of the event is inadequately processed; the memory is dysfunctionally stored in an isolated memory network. When this memory network is activated, the individual may re-experience aspects of the original event, often resulting in inappropriate overreactions. This explains why people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic incident may have recurring sensory flashbacks, thoughts, beliefs, or dreams. An unprocessed memory of a traumatic event can retain high levels of sensory and emotional intensity, even though many years may have passed.

The theory is that EMDR works directly with memory networks and enhances information processing by forging associations between the distressing memory and more adaptive information contained in other semantic memory networks. It is thought that the distressing memory is transformed when new connections are forged with more positive and realistic information. This results in a transformation of the emotional, sensory, and cognitive components of the memory so that, when it is accessed, the individual is no longer distressed. Instead he/she recalls the incident with a new perspective, new insight, resolution of the cognitive distortions, elimination of emotional distress, and relief of related physiological arousal.

How long does it take?

When the distressing or traumatic event is an isolated incident, the symptoms can often be cleared with one to three 50 minute EMDR sessions. But when multiple traumatic events contribute to a health problem—such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, parental neglect, severe illness, accident, injury, or health-related trauma that result in chronic impairment to health and well-being—the time to heal may be longer. 



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