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EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)

Twenty-five years ago psychologist Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that particular eye movements, under certain conditions, were able to reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts.  Dr. Shapiro studied this effect scientifically and went on to develop a method that came to be known as EMDR.  In the years that followed, this method proved to be extremely successful in treating survivors of trauma.  Since then EMDR has continued to develop and evolve through the contributions of therapists and researchers from around the world.  Today EMDR has become a set of standardized protocols that incorporate elements from many different treatment approaches.  EMDR is not simply eye movements, but a comprehensive treatment modality that requires in-depth history taking, client assessment, and the establishment of a sound therapeutic relationship.

How It Works

A person becomes traumatized when EMDR Therapy NYCan event or series of events causes that individual to become emotionally, physically or mentally overwhelmed, and fearful that he or she will be hurt, killed or have a psychological breakdown.  It happens, in part, because a particularly disturbing event can cause a breakdown in the ability of the right and left hemispheres of the brain to work together to process the event in their usual, integrated way.  Instead, the traumatic event remains in a split-off or disconnected state in the right hemisphere, cutoff from the left, which is the region that contains the ability to use language, to orient oneself in time, and to formulate personal meaning from experience.

The nervous system literally gets stuck, like a wound to the body that can’t heal.  Thus, recalling a trauma may feel as bad as having gone through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells and feelings haven’t changed or become assimilated over time.  Like a broken record they simply repeat themselves in their original form over and over again, limiting one’s sense of security in the world and affecting the way one relates to other people.

EMDR can be a highly effective intervention in this area.  It allows normal information processing to be resumed and the traumatic experience to be organically integrated so that an individual no longer re-lives the original images, sounds and feelings when the event is brought to mind.  He or she will still remember what happened, but the memory will be much less upsetting.  An incest survivor, for example, may no longer be plagued by nightmares or flashbacks of the traumatic event, but will not forget what actually occurred.  And instead of continuing to cling to a limiting belief such as “no one can be trusted”, he or she may come to believe that some people are, indeed trustworthy.

In a typical EMDR session the therapist works with the client to identify a specific problem as the focus of the treatment session.  The client calls to mind the disturbing issue or event (what was seen, heard and felt) and identifies any irrational thoughts and beliefs that may be currently held about that event.  The therapist then directs the left-to-right movement of the eyes while the client focuses on the disturbing material, noticing whatever comes to mind without making any effort to control the experience.  Sets of eye movements are continued until the memory becomes less disturbing and becomes associated with more accurate and positive thoughts about one’s self (e.g. “I did the best I could” instead of “I did something wrong”).

During EMDR the client may experience intense emotions, but by the end of the session most people report a great reduction in the level of disturbance.  The type of problem, the client’s life circumstances, and the amount of previous trauma will all determine how many treatment sessions are necessary.

EMDR has been successful in treating the following conditions:

  • post-traumatic stress
  • panic attacks
  • complicated grief
  • phobias
  • performance anxiety
  • stress
  • addiction-related trauma

Both the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies designate EMDR to be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress. Research has shown that EMDR is not only a very effective treatment modality, but a time-efficient one as well.