EMDR: the benefits of the EMDR method

EMDR therapy helps heal trauma and painful events. In this article, find out what EMDR is, and what its principles, history, and benefits are.

In addition, we answer your questions on how to train in EMDR, the conduct of a session, and its effectiveness in view of the scientific literature.

What is EMDR?

The acronym EMDR comes from the English Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which means in French “Desensitization and Reprocessing by Eye Movements”.

Originally developed in the late 80s by Francine Shapiro, this technique has become popular for its effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.

A therapeutic technique in its own right, EMDR follows a rigorous procedure with the particularity of using bilateral stimulation (which can be visual, tactile, or audible).

This call to stimulation would have the ability to recode the images, perceptions, and memories encoded negatively in the emotional brain and thus, reduce their negative impact on the life of the individual.

The principles of EMDR

The goal of EMDR is to decrease the emotional load associated with a traumatic memory.

To do this, the subject must dive intensely into their stressful emotions while the therapist periodically interrupts the experience to provoke sensory stimulation, such as quickly moving their fingers in front of the person’s face.

The rhythmic movement of both eyes would be the same as that which takes place spontaneously when an individual dreams (during the so-called Rapid Eye Movement).

This stimulation would restructure the traumatic information in the cortex and no longer in the limbic brain, linked to emotions. Indeed, it is because the memory could not be processed by the cortex and that it overinvested the emotional brain that the symptoms appear and persist.

Recoding induced by eye movements reduces the emotional charge associated with memory.

In general, this process is natural and spontaneous, which is why some traumas leave few traces.

When the trauma is too violent, or the individual is in a period of invulnerability, this process fails and gives way to symptoms. This is where EMDR is effective.

The benefits of EMDR

Overall, EMDR can generate positive feelings, increase awareness, and change beliefs and behaviors.

This technique is also used to strengthen the patient’s internal resources, allowing him to adopt the desired changes.

Thus, EMDR is effective in treating several more specific disorders.

Reduce symptoms related to post-traumatic stress

Many scientific studies have highlighted the effectiveness of EMDR on this condition.

In a 2009 study on the effect of EMDR therapy in the management of traumatic grief, results showed a decrease in:

  • traumatic grief;
  • anxiety;
  • depression;
  • psychological distress of participants.

In addition, another study demonstrated the greater effectiveness of EMDR therapy on placebos and antidepressants. Indeed, after 6 months, 57% of the 88 patients had no more symptoms thanks to EMDR.

However, some authors reported that the positive effects of EMDR on symptoms did not last for six months and five years after treatment.

Thus, EMDR has a proven track record of helping victims of war, crime, and sexual assault.

Reduce chronic pain

The results of EMDR in the treatment of chronic pain are encouraging.

This therapy would decrease painful sensations through an improvement in the physical and emotional perception of pain, and reduce negative effects, anxiety levels, and depression related to pain.

Treating phobias

Several studies seek to verify the effectiveness of EMDR in the treatment of phobias.

However, the paucity of scientific literature and research on this subject does not guarantee arriving at real conclusions even if it appears that EMDR would still have positive effects on phobic symptoms.

EMDR in practice

How to apply the EMDR method?

In order to practice EMDR, one must have completed training. It is composed of 50% theoretical courses and 50% practical exercises and has two levels accompanied by a cycle of supervision.

Access to this training is reserved for psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, occupational psychologists, and psychotherapists.

How does an EMDR session work?

The EMDR session begins with a preparatory interview to gather information about the patient. This will be done through a deep exploration of the patient’s problem as well as a serious anamnesis.

The therapist will then ask his patient to think about the traumatic memory and to evaluate on a scale its emotional impact. This evaluation will serve as a benchmark to evaluate the effectiveness of the therapy as the sessions progress.

After that, the therapist asks the subject to picture the event at the source of the problem and maintain concentration. The representation can be visual, emotional, cognitive, or physical.

At certain times during the process, the therapist subjects the subject to a sensory stimulus affecting both sides of the body. It can be movements in front of the eyes, sounds on either side of the head, or tapping on both arms. Then the process resumes, and so on several times.

Between each stimulation, there may be a dialogue between the therapist and the patient about the perceptions, emotions, and sensations related to this event, but not necessarily.

Is EMDR really effective?

EMDR has been the subject of many conclusive studies, which is why this technique is recognized in the scientific community and by some official organizations (INSERM, WHO) in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, EMDR therapy is no more effective than other psychological approaches to trauma management, according to some studies.

In addition, other studies have shown that the eye movements so characteristic of this technique would not be necessary for the therapeutic process.

History of EMDR

In 1979, Francine Shapiro learned of her cancer, which led her to explore the links between stress, mental activity, and illness. After resuming her studies in psychology and obtaining a doctorate, it was while walking in a park that she was brought on the EMDR trail.

Assailed by dark thoughts and ruminations, she found that when moved her eyes from left to right, helped reduce negative thoughts, and decrease their emotional charge when these thoughts reappeared.

Francine, therefore, hypothesized a link between the two events. They follow a few months of experimentation on herself, then with her loved ones, and finally with her clients in psychotherapy.

Image Credit: Image by prostooleh on Freepik

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