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  • Writer's pictureHannah Hamilton

What is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR Therapy) might be the biggest tongue-twister out of all the therapeutic modalities. It's no wonder that everybody shortens it to EMDR and Francine Shapiro, who formalized the therapy, is said to have regretted the name. Along with its name, EMDR Therapy can itself be confusing and mysterious; yet many professionals and clients alike talk about the benefits and need for EMDR Therapy availability.


So what is EMDR Therapy?


Francine Shapiro identified the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) theory, which to put it in basic terms, states that people have adaptive information stored in their brain (such as experiences of success or love) but that when they experience trauma, their brain may store those memories maladaptively and cause distress. She posited that by using bilateral eye movements, we can help the brain connect the adaptive information with the maladaptive memories so that the brain can change the maladaptive to adaptive. While there is more to the AIP theory and it is still only a theory, it doesn't explain what EMDR is like, only how it may be working.


During EMDR Therapy, the goal is to activate an experience that the individual may have that is still unresolved, harmful, or they have inaccurate thoughts about. Then we use a step-by-step process to apply bilateral stimulation (BLS) to heal the distress. This may seem like a very broad explanation, which is true! EMDR is a structured therapy that is also very flexible and can be applied to many situations. For one example, BLS can be through eye-movements back and forth, tapping back and forth, alternating audio, walking, or many other forms of bilateral movement. The main idea is that by taking certain steps we can help an individual's brain heal itself through connection to more accurate and helpful information.


If you are a therapist, you may be wondering how EMDR fits into your sessions. Some will argue that EMDR is an entire modality and that you are doing EMDR from the beginning of treatment. This is true. In fact the first phase of EMDR is history taking, which is generally the first step any therapist takes with a new individual. Some argue that EMDR is a technique that you can use in your general therapy practice to resolve individual traumas. This is also true. In fact, many people will require a blending of EMDR with other modalities in order to prepare for and complete EMDR Therapy.


It may be my Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) training or my belief that holding the both/and is the healthiest way of being in this world, but I see EMDR Therapy as having both roles. For me, I am a comprehensive EMDR therapist who sees my theoretical orientation as EMDR and I integrate other modalities as needed. However, if you are a die-hard DBT therapist or psychodynamic therapist or any other modality and you want to learn how to implement EMDR Therapy into your practice, it is achievable and helpful!


The goal of any therapy, and the goal of EMDR, is to provide the best care for each person in the way that they need it and to create a space for healing. I have seen over and over again in my career the ways EMDR Therapy can do this and am excited to share my experience.



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