What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapeutic technique which is supposed to help people process traumatic events. It has been used in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorder, and related psychological issues. The efficacy of this process is not understood, and it is controversial in some circles. Some people argue that EMDR is of questionable value, since it has not performed well in controlled studies and because the mechanism through which it works is unclear.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing may be done to help a person process a traumatic event.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing may be done to help a person process a traumatic event.

The concept was developed in the late 1980s. In eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, client and therapist move through a series of eight steps together. The goal is to get the client to process traumatic events without experiencing trauma, so that the patient can recover from the trauma. For people who have experienced trauma, attempts at processing can result in experiencing the trauma all over again, which is not beneficial. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is supposed to help the patient move past this phase by allowing the patient to process the experience.

The technique of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the late 1980's.
The technique of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the late 1980's.

During the session, the patient is asked to visualize both the trauma and things which make the patient feel relaxed and happy. Images may be used as visual cues, and the therapist also engages the client in eye movements. The client can be asked to follow the finger of a therapist, an instrument, or a light. The rapid movements back and forth are supposed to desensitize the patient so that she or he can focus on processing the trauma and moving through it. Sessions usually last around 90 minutes, and can occur on varying schedules.

EMDR has proven effective for relieving post traumatic stress.
EMDR has proven effective for relieving post traumatic stress.

For some patients, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing seems to be very helpful. In some of these cases, therapists have found that any kind of stimulus which alternates stimulation to either side of the brain is helpful. Tapping, for example, seems to have similar results. In these patients, the patient is able to process the trauma and move forward, and will not experience recurrence of the trauma when thinking about it.

In other patients, EMDR does not appear to have a benefit. Psychotherapy is a highly individualized experience, and as a result, something which works well for one person may not be effective for another. Studies are also unclear on the long term benefits of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing; it is possible that patients who experience benefits may relapse later in life if the therapy is not continued.

Psychotherapy is a highly individualized experience, so may not be as effective for some patients as it is in others.
Psychotherapy is a highly individualized experience, so may not be as effective for some patients as it is in others.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

Wisedly33

Hmm. I thought this was something completely different until I read the article. I thought it had something to do with helping people with vertigo retrain their eye movements.

As with many psychotherapy modalities, some work better for some people than for others. This sounds like a relatively harmless treatment, and if it helps people get through traumatic experiences without so much stress and additional trauma, it can only be a good thing. I don't see any way it could harm a patient, so there's no reason not to try it if a therapist feels it could prove beneficial to the patient.

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