Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a specialized form of psychotherapy that is used almost exclusively for treating PTSD and its associated conditions, including depression. EMDR typically is integrated into a conventional psychotherapy regimen and is not used alone to treat PTSD.
It has now been more than ten years since Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was introduced by originator Francine Shapiro (1989). She has described EMDR as "a model, set of principles, procedures and protocols that together represent a new approach to psychotherapy". This treatment method is hypothesized to facilitate the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and to bring these to an adaptive resolution indicated by desensitization of emotional distress, reformulation of associated cognitions, and relief of accompanying physiological arousal. Shapiro (1995, 1999) maintains that EMDR, with its brief exposures to associated material, external/internal focus, and structured therapeutic protocol, is a distinctly different form of therapy, and that it represents a new paradigm in therapy. Because of its claims for rapid effective treatment, EMDR has been subjected to many empirical tests and to much scientific scrutiny. Since Shapiro's (1989) original study, there have been 13 controlled randomized studies that investigated the use of EMDR with participants diagnosed with PTSD. These studies have yielded a range of results, with the efficacy of EMDR varying across studies.
In order to understand EMDR, one needs to have a relatively clear idea of how trauma can affect the brain. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the brain fails to successfully process the trauma and it gets stuck in the central nervous system. The body fails to recognise that the person is now safe. Instead it reacts as though danger is current, and this throws the person out of balance on many levels, including emotional and physical.
EMDR is unique because it facilitates the processing of information that has become 'stuck' in the central nervous system. Brain scans have actually captured information transferring from one side of a brain to another as a person experiences an EMDR session. The same cannot be said for other forms of counselling.
This is a really important point, because the mainstream and rather outdated approach, especially in the UK, is to use talk-based therapies or drugs with PTSD. These may help for the duration they are given, but soon after they are withdrawn, the brain will loop back into the trauma and the whole cycle with start over again, which can literally lead a person to be suicidal, especially since the general attitude will be that adequate help has already been given.
The effect of EMDR is so rapid and dramatic that when he first read about it in a professional journal 10 years ago, Steven Silver, Ph.D., a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD specialist, was skeptical. "I remember calling up the editor," he says, "and telling him that we were the victim of some kind of hoax." Silver now uses EMDR in his practice.
"What is new is not effective," says James Herbert, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at M.C.P. Hahnemann University in Philadelphia, "and what is effective is not new."
But recent research has begun to convince such mainstream organizations as the American Psychological Association and the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, both of which approved EMDR in 1999. One of the most impressive studies was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress in 1998. Sixty traumatized young women in Colorado Springs, Colorado, were randomly assigned to either EMDR or "active listening" therapy. After only two sessions, the EMDR patients had markedly fewer symptoms of PTSD than the active-listening group.
For Donna Bowers, herself a psychotherapist, EMDR is nothing short of a miracle. "It opened up the entire world for me without the panic and fear that I'd had for 16 years," she says. "It gave me back my life."