In 1987, psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts, under certain conditions. Dr. Shapiro studied this effect scientifically and, in 1989, she reported success using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to treat victims of trauma in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Since then, EMDR has developed and evolved through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world and has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma.
EMDR is a set of standardized protocols that incorporates elements from many different treatment approaches. As EMDR is a mental health intervention, it should only be offered by properly trained and licensed mental health clinicians.
When a person becomes chronically traumatised, they have not been able to fully integrate the trauma into their past and process the information – it is as if the memory gets frozen in time. This means that whenever the memory is accessed either accidentally (i.e. through an environmental trigger, such as a smell or sight of something), or purposely, the trauma memory causes a strong emotional reaction in the traumatised person. These strong emotional reactions force the body and mind to react in an emergency response. It is as if the initial trauma is recurring in the here and now and the traumatised person is pushed into a state of hyper-arousal. In this state, the traumatised person will try and cope by a whole host of different coping strategies, for instance avoiding people or situations, ‘numbing out’, becoming angry or irritated or resorting to alcohol or drugs to manage the intense feelings.
EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way that the brain processes information. Normal information processing is resumed, so following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way.