What is EMDR? Is it a real thing? How does it work?

It’s a real thing. This is the therapeutic practice known as “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy”, which employs back-and-forth eye movements while recalling traumatic events to reduce distress when the event is remembered (desensitization) and convince the brain that the event is no longer something to be afraid of or preoccupied with (reprocessing). In addition to the eye movements, therapists also use tapping on alternate sides of the body, handheld buzzers, or tones alternating in headphones, so the name doesn’t really make much sense at this point, but the eye movements were the original thing that made this modality unique, and the name has stuck. 

The original theory about the eye movements was that it mimicked the back-and-forth eye movements of REM sleep, this has been disproven. It may be linked to an “orienting” effect, like when we scan the environment for signs of threat. It may be that the use of the bilateral stimulation gives the brain something to pay partial attention to, giving the brain a task of sorts, that allows the person to address traumatic material without being totally overwhelmed. 

I’m not really going to address the neuroscience and research, since there’s plenty of information available online about that, both affirming and discounting the validity of this therapeutic modality. Research is ongoing, and people have some strong feelings and opinions both ways. As a pragmatist, I prefer to focus on what provides healing and value to my clients. I’m just a therapist who finds this to be a powerful tool to resolve persistent and life-disrupting symptoms of traumatic memory, and the problems we may not realize are related to traumatic memory. 

I have also experienced EMDR as a client, so I have firsthand experience of EMDR from the other side of the couch, so to speak. My own course of EMDR therapy last year, which lasted about 6 sessions, was very effective at resolving the problem I was having with anxiety and hypervigilance after a frightening event. 

EMDR as a therapeutic treatment was only dimly on my radar when a fellow clinician asked me to attend a training with them several years ago. I went into the training quite skeptical and emerged astonished. Part of the training is experiential, meaning we broke into groups of 3 people to take turns being the therapist, the client, and an observer, while our trainers popped in and out of the Zoom breakout rooms to observe and support the process. It was awkward and vulnerable because my fellow students and I were bringing real stuff to work on, since you needed to be able to raise a degree of emotional distress to really experience the process in a meaningful way. A few months before the training I had an inexplicable feeling of panic while hearing my neighbor’s kids fighting in her backyard, so it was easy to choose my target memory to address in the training. 

The experience of “reprocessing” the target memory, as well as developing the “resources” to manage the emotional distress, just blew my mind. For weeks and months afterward, I kept checking to see if hearing kids fighting or screaming, or thinking about the target memory, caused any upset for me. Nope, there was no reaction. I began using EMDR with some of my clients and luckily the first several were quite straightforward and successful. The clients were pleased, and I was happy that I had this new way of helping people. 

Since then, I have used EMDR with quite a few clients, and have done the additional training and consultation with EMDR trainers to get EMDRIA certified. Since I often work with clients with complex trauma from childhood abuse and neglect, the additional training is needed to address more complicated or sensitive situations. Highly anxious or dissociative people need extra preparation and different strategies for safe and successful EMDR therapy.