Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique used in psychotherapy to identify and change those neural pathways that control our unwanted behaviors, thoughts, and emotions. According to psychologist Francine Shapiro, the developer of EMDR, “when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it may overwhelm usual cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms. The memory and associated stimuli of the event are inadequately processed, and are dysfunctionally stored in our memory. The goal of EMDR therapy is to process these distressing memories, reducing their lingering influence and allowing clients to develop more adaptive coping mechanisms.”
Eye Movement Desensitization can be used for more than reprocessing memories of traumatic experiences. It can be used to eliminate neural paths that keep negative behaviors, thoughts, and feelings in place or develop and strengthen positive ones. It is most commonly known for treating traumatic, distressing, or negative events. It has been proven to help resolve the development of trauma-related disorders such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in soldiers and victims of violence or extreme distress.
When this technique is used for addressing traumatic events, the client is asked to recall a traumatic event while simultaneously undergoing dual attention stimulation that can consist of side-to-side eye movement, vibrations, tapping, or tones delivered through headphones. The clinician directs the process and makes adjustments as appropriate to prevent re-experiencing the distressing event. Once the dysfunctionally-stored information is re-processed, the past incident or old thought no longer influences current responses in the same way, thus allowing a person to choose how to respond more adaptively.
There are different protocols within EMDR that can be used more generally to lessen the activation of distressing emotions and behavioral reactivity, and to target specific negative thoughts or self-beliefs. When using this technique for strengthening positive thoughts and self-beliefs, we identify the positive thought to strengthen and use dual attention stimulation to increase the neural paths to that way of thinking. There are a variety of ways EMDR can be used to strengthen existing skills and resources.