EMDR: The Trending Technique Helping Trauma Survivors Reprocess Painful Memories

a woman's eye

One day in 1987 American psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro was on a walk when she noticed her eyes rapidly moving side to side as she recalled a distressing memory. Her negative emotions seemed to dissipate as her eyes darted back and forth. By combining classical conditioning with a cognitive component, she developed a way to test the technique on others and completed a controlled study with significant results. She called the method Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD), and standardized it by guiding the eye movements in patients (moving her finger like a pendulum) as they recalled a traumatic memory.

The Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Technique

Half of the 22 participants in the first study received EMD, performing the eye movements while focusing on the main image of their traumatic memory, identifying the negative emotions attached, but not going into great detail. The other half replaced the eye movements with giving a detailed description of their traumatic memory, while holding the imagery in their mind. Participants in the EMD group reported a much more significant decrease in distress and increase in positive beliefs than the other group. In 1990 the “R” was added as the technique evolved beyond desensitization to incorporate “reprocessing.”

The method proved especially effective in treating Vietnam veterans with PTSD and sexual assault survivors. It is thought to be especially helpful in these cases because it focuses on reprocessing the emotions attached to a memory relying on the brain’s physiological mechanisms of self-healing, as opposed to processing emotions by continuously talking through the traumatic memory, or forcing oneself to be exposed to triggers (exposure therapy). Reliving details and scenarios associated with the traumatic event often retraumatizes survivors, sending them two steps back before forward.

Processing Negative Emotions

In the following 30 years, therapists across the country (including Kim Ronk) have been certified in EMDR and have used it to successfully treat: PTSD, panic and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, addiction, survivors of sexual assault, people who have witnessed murders, and even phantom limb syndrome.

But not everyone is convinced. Some are skeptical because how it works can’t exactly be explained, even though the phenomena is no less mysterious than rapid-eye movement during sleep, as EMDR practitioner Nancy Cusack explained to Flare magazine (link).

During REM, the eyes move back and forth quickly as the brain processes information from the day. When someone has a traumatic experience, the processing system can be interrupted, and information can become “stuck,” causing a number of post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“When an incident is desensitized and reprocessed with EMDR therapy, emotions, negative beliefs, images from the incident and physical sensations in the body get processed. Channels in the brain free up and are able to access memories, and feelings of joy that are often blocked after trauma,” she says, adding that symptoms can be eliminated in three to five sessions. The speed with which it works and the lack of “homework” (like is associated with cognitive behavioral therapy) make it an attractive option.

EMDR – Recommended by the VA and APA

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense have “strongly recommended” EMDR for the treatment of PTSD in both military and non-military populations. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also recommends it to treat PTSD, noting it’s particularly helpful to those who have trouble talking about the trauma they’ve experienced.