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What is EMDR?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2014
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EMDR is an acronym for Eye Movement and Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a therapy method often employed to help those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and other therapies centered on the body form the basis for theories that evolved into EMDR.

The goal in EMDR is to help clients remove negative associations and impulses with past and present experiences. The first step of the therapy is to gather a detailed history of the client and define those areas that are of deep trouble to the client. EMDR is almost always performed by a licensed therapist, who can also employ other methods for helping patients to recover from negative thinking as a result of trauma.

Once areas of trauma have been identified, the EMDR process begins. The therapist will direct a patient to look at either a metronome or metronome-like movements of the therapist’s hand. While the eyes move back and forth, tracking the hand movement, the patient will first be directed to think of a particular negative feeling and dwell on it. This process may last less than a minute.

The patient will also be directed to find feelings within himself or herself that are positive and evoke happiness. During parts of EMDR, the patient will be redirected to focus his or her thoughts on things that feel safe or positive, while tracking hand movement.

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The patient will be asked to rate his or her feelings about negative images or thoughts once he or she focuses on them. Ratings may be taken several times during a session to gauge the therapy's effectiveness. Clients undergoing their first few EMDR sessions may need to be redirected so their focus is singular to the image. Sessions continue until the client is desensitized to previously negative stimuli.

The theory behind EMDR is that, in times of extreme trauma, the mind cannot completely process emotional content associated with the trauma. For example, a rape victim may arrive at the conclusion that he or she is somehow responsible for the rape. When trauma becomes associated with negative self-beliefs, recovery is challenging. Even though, on an intellectual level, the rape victim knows she or he is not responsible, deeper negative messages prevail.

By dwelling momentarily on a negative image or thought, and then quickly moving to a positive thought, feelings can be more fully processed in EMDR. Eye movement is thought to reduce the vivid aspects of trauma, allowing easier processing. It also serves as a distraction so focus on the image or thought can remain intense. As sessions of EMDR accumulate, it is thought that new neural pathways open up to allow the client to redirect focus when memories of a traumatic event recur. These “redirects” help the client quickly move from negative images to positive ones.

EMDR has proven effective for relieving post traumatic stress, and also has shown some efficacy with those who suffer from anxiety disorder. Clinical studies in the 1990s and early 2000s have shown great promise with this therapy. It is least successful in patients who have mental illness of an organic nature and are not receiving chemical treatment.

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