Julie Miller's Mental Health Blog

“E” is for EMDR

Posted on: March 16, 2010

“EMDR” is an acronym for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.”  This therapeutic process was first stumbled upon by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s.  The story I heard when I was first trained in 2000 was as follows:

Francine had some family issues going on, and had received a letter from her brother.  She was upset.  She went out for a walk, and on one side of the sidewalk was a fence that cast shadows to the other side of the sidewalk.  Francine voluntarily moved her eyes as she walked by each shadow, moving her eyes from right to left and back again.  When she got to the end of the sidewalk, she noticed she wasn’t distressed about the letter any longer, and she had not forgotten about it, not been hypnotized, not dissociated, and not been distracted.  When she brought up the letter, the distress was simply gone.  Being a graduate student at the time, she became interested in what had happened, and began to look into it.  She practiced on family and friends, and developed the trauma protocol we basically still use today.  She began working with Vietnam-era vets in the VA system and discovered EMDR works to reduce disturbance about past traumatic experiences that continue to impact on the individual’s life.

Through the last two decades, research has been conducted with EMDR that shows not only its effectiveness in reducing distress about unprocessed traumatic experiences, but also in working through just about any issue you would go to a therapist to address:  anxiety, depression, chemical dependence, eating disorder, grief/loss, phobias, chronic pain, etc.  Research has also shown that it is not the eye movements that are the key to how it works; it’s any form of bilateral stimulation (BLS) that kick starts the innate information processing system all humans have in the central nervous system.  This information processing system is adaptive, allowing us all as humans to learn from our day-to-day experiences.  If that system gets overwhelmed by any particular event or series of events, the processing system gets stuck and we can’t get through the process of learning from the experience, throwing away the garbage, and filing the memory away in old storage.  If we can’t get the experience(s) to run through the adaptive information processing system (a phrase coined by Francine Shapiro), then the system starts to just repeat repeat repeat, hoping maybe THIS time it’ll run through.  Like a broken record, skipping and going back to the same place every time, never moving forward.

With unprocessed traumatic material, this “skipping” process looks like recurring dreams/nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thinking, getting triggered, avoiding triggers, hypervigilence and dissociation.  My system is trying to get it processed through, but keeps getting stuck.

EMDR helps kick-start that processing system that’s gotten stuck around a particular issue, and keeps it’s engine running as you work through the process.  You will focus on a particular issue (like Francine and her letter) and the bilateral stimulation will keep you processing alone instead of the system shutting down.

EMDR must be conducted by a highly trained clinician who has plenty of experience using EMDR.  You can find more information about EMDR and trained clinicians at the following sources:




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