EMDR: Breakthrough Therapy for Traumatic Stress

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), affecting over five million adults nationwide each year, is seen not only in war veterans, but also in disaster victims, police officers, and children - anyone who's suffered a traumatic experience.

Studies suggest in cases of PTSD, the experience becomes "locked" in the brain and can be released later, triggered by outside experiences. During these moments a person can go through severe flashbacks, stress and fear.


To break this pattern, Dr. Francine Shapiro, at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, Calif., developed an unusual form of therapy using rapid eye movements, called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Shapiro believes that EMDR could provide a key to conquering PTSD more quickly and effectively than before. Below are some answers she gives to common questions on this treatment:

Q: What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing?

A: EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that brings together aspects of all different psychological orientations in addition to stimulation like eye movement, alternating hand taps, or tones.

The basis of EMDR is that disturbing experiences, from highly traumatic accidents or rape, to more common events like childhood humiliations or failures, can have a long-lasting negative effect. Whether people are suffering from vivid recollections, highly disturbing emotions, feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth, they can generally be traced back to earlier experiences which are "incorrectly" stored in the brain.

Q: How does EMDR work?

A: EMDR appears to have a direct effect on the way the brain processes traumatic events. Physical stimuli shifts attention from one side of the brain to the other, and researchers have suggested that the eye movement-similar to the rapid eye movement that occurs during dreaming - triggers a neurological mechanism that accelerates the processing of information. As a result, EMDR seems to concentrate the effects of therapy so that people can work through the traumatic memory very quickly, possibly in only a few sessions.

Q: How is EMDR different from conventional psychotherapy?

A: EMDR integrates elements of all the major psychotherapies, which in combination contribute to EMDR's effect.

In addition, alternating eye movements, hand taps, or tones are used, which many researchers believe stimulate brain mechanisms that allow rapid information processing to take place. A number of researchers believe that the same processes are stimulated during rapid eye movement sleep, a time when rapid learning from experience takes place.

Q: Is EMDR a permanent cure for post-traumatic stress disorders?

A: Some studies show that as many as 90 percent of people who undergo EMDR are cured of PTSD, often within only three sessions.

However, the speed and duration of any form of psychotherapy depends on the individual involved. Follow-up studies have shown that positive effects are generally maintained or increased.


A Closer Look at EMDR Procedures & Risks

Q: Does EMDR therapy involve risks?

A: As with any psychotherapy, it's important to choose a mental health practitioner who has formal training in the style of therapy being used. Since EMDR can be an especially intense form of treatment, the practitioner should be very familiar with how to apply it to each patient's unique problem, emotional stability, medical condition, etc.


This can directly affect the speed and success of the therapy. Clients can check on the training of their therapist through the following websites: www.emdria.org and www.emdr.com

Q: How do I know if I am a candidate for EMDR therapy?

A: EMDR has a wide range of applications for clients who suffer from very violent, scary, or dangerous experiences or who show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, the therapy is also used to help people work through experiences that were not life-threatening, but continue to impede their lives in areas of self-esteem, confidence, desirability, etc.

Q: How do I find an EMDR-trained therapist?

A: As EMDR has gained increased recognition over the years in treating post-traumatic stress disorders, the therapy has become more widespread. Currently, there are more than 30,000 EMDR-trained therapists worldwide. The EMDR International Association website provides a search function to find certified therapists at www.emdria.org. Also a number of therapists provide pro bono training and humanitarian assistance worldwide. These programs can be viewed at www.emdrhap.org.

Q: Will my insurance pay for it?

A: The costs of sessions vary as does mental health coverage from plan to plan, but EMDR is considered a standard form of psychotherapy.

However, since it is relatively new, your doctor might not be familiar with all of the research supporting it. In that case, the EMDR International Association provides a packet of information for its members that discusses EMDR and the studies that support it. It may be helpful to show this to your doctor.

The information expressed on this page is the opinions and perspectives of the individual featured here and is not necessarily endorsed or recommended by Discovery Health Online.