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.