What is EDMR?


EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a powerful therapeutic tool discovered and developed by Francine Shapiro, PhD. The process utilizes Rapid Eye Movements, not unlike those innate to the brain during REM sleep, to unlock the brain’s natural “information processing system” which Dr. Shapiro believes becomes overwhelmed when a person experiences trauma. EMDR is used in many VA hospitals and some of the first recipients of the process were Vietnam veterans. Those veterans PET scans indicated a change after 1-2 sessions.

Bessel VanderKolk, Harvard researcher on the physiological and emotional impact of Psychological Trauma on the human organism, espouses EMDR as a powerful technique unlike any other. He states that traumatic memory is stored differently than normal, everyday events. Traumatic memory is stored in the limbic brain initially and may remain unprocessed or undigested for years, where the body’s fight or flight mechanisms perceive it to be happening in the present. This results in symptoms of PTSD such as flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, erratic sleep, anxiety, panic attacks, and ” triggering” when the person is exposed to sensory experiences reminiscent of the trauma(s).

EMDR facilitates a natural and rapid integration or “digestion” of the traumatic memory, and as a result, the person is able to perceive the event and it’s associated experiences as being “in the past.” The process also helps shift the cognitive distortions originally associated with the experience ( I’m not good enough”  “I can’t trust”, “It was my fault” etc) to a more self-affirming, positive state. The memory(s) no longer are the lens through which the person is interpreting themselves and others. This typically brings about a rapid change in the recipient’s thought processes, and physiological states (calmer, more ‘in the present, more relaxed, and improved sleeping.)


(culled from emdr institute)

In 1987, Francine Shapiro was walking in the park when she realized that eye movements appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories. She assumed that eye movements had a desensitizing effect, and when she experimented with this she found that others also had the same response to eye movements. It became apparent however that eye movements by themselves did not create comprehensive therapeutic effects and so Shapiro added other treatment elements, including a cognitive component, and developed a standard procedure that she called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD)1.

Shapiro then conducted a case study and a controlled study to test the effectiveness of EMD. In the controlled study, she randomly assigned 22 individuals with traumatic memories to two conditions: half received EMD, and half received the same therapeutic procedure with imagery and detailed description replacing the eye movements. She reported that EMD resulted in significant decreases in ratings of subjective distress and significant increases in ratings of confidence in a positive belief. Participants in the EMD conditioning reported significantly larger changes than those in the imagery condition.

Shapiro wrote, “a single session of the procedure was sufficient to desensitize subjects’ traumatic memories, as well as dramatically alter their cognitive assessment.” Unfortunately, Shapiro has often been erroneously cited as claiming that “EMDR can cure [posttraumatic stress disorder] PTSD in one session (F. Shapiro, 1989).” Shapiro never made this statement; what she actually wrote was that the EMD procedure “serves to desensitize the anxiety … not to eliminate all PTSD-related symptomatology and complications, nor to provide coping strategies for the victims” and reported “an average treatment time of five sessions” to comprehensively treat PTSD.

1989 was the first year that controlled studies investigating the treatment of PTSD were published. Besides Shapiro’s article, three other studies were published. The Brom et al. study compared the results of psychodynamic therapy, hypnotherapy, and desensitization and provided an average of 16 sessions. It found clinically significant treatment effects for 60% of the civilian participants, with no differences between the conditions. The Cooper and Clum study compared flooding to standard care in a Veterans Administration Hospital. They reported moderate clinical effects after 6-14 sessions, with a 30% patient drop-out rate. The Keane et al.11 (1989) study compared flooding to a wait-list control for veteran participants and reported moderate clinical effects after 14-16 sessions.

Shapiro continued to develop this treatment approach, incorporating feedback from clients and other clinicians who were using EMD. In 1991, she changed the name to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to reflect the insights and cognitive changes that occurred during treatment, and to identify the information processing theory that she developed to explain the treatment effects.

Because EMDR therapy was an effective treatment, achieving results very quickly for many clients, Shapiro felt an ethical obligation to teach other clinicians so that individuals suffering from PTSD could find relief. However, EMDR was still experimental since it had not received independent confirmation through other controlled studies. She attempted to resolve this ethical dilemma by teaching EMDR only to licensed clinicians, and by ensuring that everyone who learned the approach was trained by the EMDR Institute in the same model. That way safeguards would be in place, clinicians would be taught to inform clients of its status, and a feedback system would allow everyone that was trained to get the most up to date information. In 1995, after other controlled studies had been published, the label “experimental” and the training restrictions were removed and a textbook of procedures was published. Shapiro has been severely criticized by some for her method of dissemination, because she initially restricted training and because she taught an experimental procedure. However, these critics ignore the APA ethics code mandated responsibilities of an innovator to determine training practices and the fact that even as late as 1998, there were no treatments for PTSD that were designated as well-established and empirically validated.. At that time, independent reviewers for the Clinical Psychology Division of the American Psychological Association identified three treatments with “probable efficacy.” These were EMDR, exposure therapy, and stress inoculation therapy.

Since the initial studies were published in 1989, hundreds of case studies have been published, and there have been numerous controlled outcome studies. These studies have demonstrated EMDR’s effectiveness in PTSD treatment and EMDR is now recognized as efficacious in the treatment of PTSD .

At the Transformation Center in Memphis, TN, we provide a safe, validating environment and assist clients in identifying and processing traumatic experiences to mental, emotional, and physiological completion.
There are no experiences which can’t be healed.

Learn more about our Trama/PTSD Programs