Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., integrates elements of many effective psychotherapies in structured protocols that are designed to maximize treatment effects. These include psychodynamic, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, experiential and body-centered therapies. EMDR is an information-processing therapy and uses an eight-phase approach along with bilateral movement techniques that foster dual awareness. Dual awareness creates a heightened experience of being an observer, while participating in the flow of one’s experience.
In EMDR theory, all humans are understood to have a physiologically based information processing system. This can be compared to other body systems, such as digestion in which the body extracts nutrients for health and survival. Our ability to digest and grow from our experiences, that are also stored as memories, is key to healthy functioning. Memories are linked into networks that contain related thoughts, images, emotions and sensations. Learning occurs when new associations are forged with material already stored in memory.
When a traumatic or very negative event occurs, information processing may be incomplete, perhaps as strong negative feelings or beliefs interfere with optimal information processing. This prevents the forging of connections with more adaptive, useful information that is held in other memory networks. For example, a rape survivor may “know” that rapists are responsible for their crimes, but this information does not connect with her feeling that she is to blame for the attack. The memory is then dysfunctional, as it is stored without appropriate associative connections and with many unprocessed elements. When the individual thinks about the trauma or when the memory is triggered by a similar situation, the person may feel like he or she is reliving it and experience strong emotions and physical sensations. A prime example is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) comprised of intrusive thoughts, emotional disturbance, and negative self-referencing beliefs.
Not only major traumatic events or “large-T traumas” can cause psychological disturbance. Sometimes a relatively minor event from childhood, such as being teased by one’s peers or disparaged by a parent, may not be adequately processed. Such “small-t traumas” can result in personality problems and become the basis of current dysfunctional reactions.
EMDR can assist to alleviate clinical complaints by processing the components of the contributing distressing memories. These can be memories of either small-t or large-T traumas. Information processing is thought to occur when the targeted memory is linked with other more adaptive, resourceful information. Learning then takes place and the experience is stored with appropriate emotions, serving to better guide the person in the future. The goal of successful treatment is to safely access and therapeutically process dysfunctional memories, experiences or behavioral patterns, so that further growth and development results.