With over 500 kinds of psychotherapy available today, one relatively new kid on the block has been widely heralded by the media, practitioners and mental health consumers. More than 60,000 trained clinicians believe in the power of EMDR–Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing–including me!
Just a few months ago, in June, I posted on my blog about anxiety. Did you know that an estimated 44 million American adults suffer from anxiety, and only one-third receive treatment? I shared nine signs that often indicate anxiety, and urged my readers to seek help for this treatable ailment. In today’s post, I wish to share one of the newer methods of treatment available today: EMDR.
What is EMDR?
It is more than likely you have never heard of EMDR. That’s okay! It is a relatively new form of treatment, and kind of a funky acronym. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and it is a breakthrough therapy with a special capacity to overcome the often devastating effects of psychological trauma. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, in the late 1980s. Shortly after its discovery, an ever-growing community of therapists saw its power to transform lives, controlled research studies consistently demonstrated its efficacy and effectiveness, and many therapists sought training to become EMDR certified. Often therapists have said that EMDR felt like a gift to themselves and their clients, and they were eager to “pay it forward” by spreading the word to colleagues.
How did EMDR start?
Like many great inventions, EMDR was born out of serendipity. One day in 1987, private California practitioner, Francine Shapiro, went for a walk in the woods. She had been preoccupied with disturbing thoughts. She discovered that her anxiety lifted after moving her eyes back and forth while observing her surroundings. Intrigued, Shapiro tried out variants of this procedure with her clients and found that they also felt better. She concluded that trauma can be resolved naturally when a person recalls parts of disturbing experiences while stimulating the eyes (by moving them laterally). EMDR was born!
Initially, EMDR was utilized and studied as a therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other anxiety disorders, such as phobias. Therapists have since extended this treatment to a host of other conditions including depression, sexual dysfunction, schizophrenia, eating disorders, addiction, and even the psychological stress generated by cancer. EMDR therapy is applicable to a wide range of psychological problems that result from overwhelming life experiences. Although I mostly use EMDR for trauma, I have also used it for certain situations where the client faces OCD or is working through fear.
How does EMDR work?
EMDR therapists begin by asking their clients to identify events or situations that provoke anxiety or fear in the present–like the painful memories of a frightening accident. After the history of related anxiety provoking events has been gathered and the assessment phase is complete, the therapist, with the help of a client, identifies a “target” event to start with. By leading the patient in a series of left-to-right, or lateral eye movements, as the patient simultaneously focuses on a disturbing memory, “bilateral stimulation” occurs. Basically the the brain’s two hemispheres synchronize, which allows clarity. A therapist may use her hands, or other EMDR developed devices, to stimulate these bilateral movements.
Dr. Shapiro and her associates developed a number of procedures for coordinating what she termed, “dual awareness,” or the unifying of the two hemispheres of the brain. The procedures have been refined and validated through controlled research at several centers around the world. Precise and careful use of these procedures can lead to the safe processing of memories, where negative thoughts and emotions can disappear.
This is more than a set of techniques. The EMDR approach provides a model for understanding human potential–including how positive experiences can lead to adaptive living, and how upsetting experiences can lead to psychological problems that interfere with a person’s ability to meet life’s challenges. The EMDR protocol requires clinicians to carefully assess and prepare adequately, particularly for persons with histories of multiple traumas.
It has long been assumed that it takes a great deal of time to heal from severe emotional pain. However, multitudes of studies have been done on EMDR which repeatedly show that by using EMDR therapy, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy much quicker. Two particularly notable studies include one where findings indicated that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after only three 90-minute sessions; and another in which a whopping 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in just 12 sessions! In fact, there has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognized by several important institutions (like the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization and the Department of Defense) as an effective form of treatment for trauma, other disturbing experiences, and even the more “everyday” experiences that bring individuals in for therapy (like low self-esteem, anxiety, or feelings of powerlessness).
I became interested in EMDR after witnessing the positive outcomes it had on my clients at an inpatient treatment center. I recognized that many clients, not just those with addictions, come into my office with trauma, and I wanted to find a way to decrease the power that the trauma had on them. This model of treatment works to decrease the intensity of emotions connected to a traumatic memory, and thus lessens the power these events have on them. I have seen EMDR work for countless clients. Two particular clients come to mind when I reflect on the power of EMDR 1) A young female adult, recently involved in a serious car accident, had trouble meeting the demands of her daily life after the accident due to flashbacks. Within 5 EMDR sessions, she was able to function like she had before her accident and the flashbacks had stopped. And 2) A client’s pet passed away which triggered the tragic death of her best friend as a child, which made sleeping impossible and caused her emotionally and physically shut-down. After multiple EMDR sessions, she was able to sleep throughout the night and started reaching out to friends (and even dating) again!
EMDR procedures should only be used by a fully trained EMDR clinician, who holds licensure in the mental health field. I have been fully trained in levels 1 and 2, and use this method on a regular basis. Just today I did three hours of EMDR with my clients! If you or someone you love could benefit from EMDR treatment, contact me today or schedule a session to be evaluated. I would be more than happy to give you an evaluation and offer the relief that can come through the effective administration of EMDR!
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Cluff Counseling: “A Letter From Your Future Therapist: 5 Things I Want My Clients To Know”
- Cluff Counseling: “Are You Are Just A Worrywart or is it Something More?”
- Cluff Counseling: “Choosing the Right Therapist for You”
- Cluff Counseling: “Reliving the Horrors: PTSD”
- Cluff Counseling: “SPLIT: A Deeper Look into Multiple Personalities”
- Cluff Counseling: “What You Need to Know About Trauma”
- EMDR Institute: “The Efficacy of EMDR”
- EMDR Institute: “What is EMDR?”
- The New York Times: “The Evidence on E.M.D.R.”
- Scientific American: “EMDR: Taking a Closer Look”
- Trauma Recovery: “What is EMDR?”