EMDR - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - is an innovative method of psychotherapy which has been used by trained mental health professionals to help an estimated half million people of all ages from many different countries. The focus of EMDR treatment is the resolution of emotional distress arising from difficult childhood experiences, or the recovery from the effects of critical incidents, such as automobile accidents, assault, natural disasters, or combat trauma. Other problems treated with EMDR are phobias, panic attacks, distress in children, and substance abuse. Another innovation focus of EMDR is performance enhancement: which aims to improve the functioning of people at work, in sports, and in the performing arts.


In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro discovered, by chance, that her voluntary eye movements reduced the intensity of negative, upsetting thoughts. Dr Shapiro studied the impact of EMDR on reducing the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam combat veterans and victims of sexual assault. She found that this new method showed promise in decreasing the nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive negative thoughts of the participants in her investigation.

Since 1989, EMDR has developed through the contributions of trained clinicians and researchers from all over the world. EMDR is now a complex method that brings together elements from the major clinical theoretical orientations, including psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, and client-centered. There are eight phases of EMDR treatment (Shapiro, 1995), to be utilized by licensed mental health professionals only after completion of an approved training curriculum.


It is not clear how EMDR works because neuroscience researchers are still exploring how the brain works. Therefore, how any method of psychotherapy works has yet to be established definitively. However, there is evidence for an innate information processing system that exists as part of human thinking processes. What research has suggested so far is that when a person is very upset, the brain cannot process information as it normally does. The event that provoked the upset becomes 'frozen in time', and 'stuck' in the information processing system. When a person remembers this event, the recalling of sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, and emotions can feel as intense as when it actually occurred. Such upsetting memories may have a profound negative impact on the way a person sees the world and relates to other people. Present-day incidents and interactions re-stimulate the experience of this upsetting event.

EMDR appears to produce a direct effect on the way the brain processes upsetting material. Researchers have suggested that the eye movements trigger a neurophysiologica l m echanism that activates an "accelerated information processing system". Accelerated information processing is a phrase used in EMDR to describe the rapid working through, 'metabolizing', of upsetting experiences. Following successful EMDR treatment, the upsetting experiences are worked through to "adaptive resolution". The person receiving EMDR comes to understand that the event is in the past, realizes appropriately who or what was responsible for the event occurring, and feels more certain about present-day safety and the capacity to make choices. What happened can still be remembered by the person, but with much less upset.

Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically-based therapy that allows a natural healing process to emerge. Clinical reports and some research findings suggest that the eye movements and the specific targeting of information about the upsetting events may permit direct access to the stored pathology in the brain and more rapid working through of disturbance than more conventional forms of therapy.


EMDR is a client-centered approach in which the clinician works with the client to identify the specific problem or problems that will be the focus of treatment. Following a defined protocol, the mental health professional helps the client identify the images, self-referenced negative belief, emotions, and body sensations associated with a targeted problem or event. The client is then asked to develop a new positive belief about the self to replace the negative belief. The believability of this new belief is rated while the client thinks of the disturbing event.

The client is prepared for EMDR and then is asked to bring to mind all the negative information identified with the problem. The client follows the fingers of the mental health professional to produce the voluntary eye movements. After each set of eye movements, the client is asked to briefly comment. The mental health professional facilitates the client's attention and works to support the client as he or she processes the upsetting material, making clinical decisions about the direction of the intervention along the way. The goal of EMDR treatment is the rapid processing of information about the negative experience and movement toward an adaptive resolution. This means a reduction in the client's distress, a shift in the negative belief to the client's positive belief, and the possibility of behaving more optimally in relationships with others and at work.


Shapiro, F. (1995). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. New York : Guilford.

For more information on trauma work, see Miriam's Brainspotting (BSP) page.

For research information regarding EMDR, please view: