Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was discovered and developed by Francine Shapiro in the mid-1980s. Since then it has grown into one of the best tools for treating simple and complex trauma, phobias, panic attacks, and a variety of other problems. Although no one knows for certain how EMDR works, multiple controlled studies have confirmed that it does work. It is speculated that by activating and accelerating reprocessing of previously “frozen” traumatic experiences through any form of bilateral stimulation (tapping on hands or knees, alternating sounds or vibrations on either side of the body, or left-right eye movements), EMDR accesses the visceral experience of the trauma and enables its rapid reprocessing and reintegration. Unlike Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), EMDR engages the whole person – mind, body, and soul – in a demanding but exhilarating process. It seems that this full engagement helps to move a traumatic memory stored in the perpetual “now” of the limbic system, forcing a person to relive it again and again in a form of flashbacks or nightmares, into a neutral memory of an event from the past. Thus a 5-year-old car crash, which may still be affecting a person’s ability to drive or feel comfortable as a passenger, can be reprocessed and stored away as just a memory – something that happened five years ago and no longer haunts one’s life. EMDR works so quickly and powerfully that a traumatic experience may often be completely “cleared out” in a single 90-minute session. Complex trauma may require multiple sessions, but ultimately can also be fully reprocessed, bringing about a wonderful sense of relief, healing, and peace.
It is easy to be skeptical of the power of EMDR when one first hears about it; after all, a one-session cure for a rape that may have maimed a woman’s psyche seems too good to be true. However, those who experienced EMDR firsthand, including myself, will readily attest to its power and effectiveness. What’s more, EMDR can sometimes heal the wounds which a person may not have known existed or the impact of which may not have been fully apparent until after it was cleared. A patient of mine, with whom I’ve done several EMDR sessions to address a lifetime or emotional and physical abuse, told me that she never would have thought it was possible to have the feeling of being so fully and beautifully healed. She said she had an almost physical sensation of having an old and ugly scar opened up, cleaned, treated, and re-stitched, so that barely any trace of it remained; for weeks after she felt warmth radiating through her upper body where much of the old wounds must have been stored.
Besides freeing one from old trauma and pain (even those traumas which a person may consider long-integrated), EMDR takes it one step further into healing beyond just relegating a traumatic experience to the past where it can now stay; it brings about a powerful kind of wisdom whereby a person gains perspective, clarity, acceptance, and peace. After a recent EMDR session in which we processed a patient’s memory of finding her infant brother dead of SIDS in his crib when she was 6, my patient smiled as she felt not just the full acceptance of the fact that sometimes tragic things “just happen” but also a newly freed sense of an inner light, shining inside her and lighting the path for herself and others in her life. That gain has held, and she kept saying that if she hadn’t experienced this firsthand, she would have never believed it. This seems to be an experience of many people who go through EMDR. You can find more information on EMDR at EMDRIA.org.