By Ernest Isaacs, MFT

The initials EMDR stand for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, an awkwardly named but very effective procedure for resolving post-traumatic stress, phobias, panic attacks, and other painful life experiences. It was discovered a few years ago by a psychologist who found as she was walking through the woods one day that when she moved her eyes back and forth in a certain way, disturbing thoughts seemed to disappear.

Since then, she has studied the process and has worked out a method of using eye movements to help people let go of traumas, and she has been teaching therapists all over the country how to do it. It has been used extensively with abuse and incest survivors to defuse the power of the old memories, and with Vietnam vets to end their battlefield flashbacks and nightmares.

The “Eye Movement” part refers to the way the process works. The therapist and the client sit down and talk about the painful incident or process to discover the interpretation that has been attached to it, the belief system about themselves. The client arrives at a negative cognition, a statement about themselves that is attached to the memory, and a positive cognition, which is a self statement that they would like to be able to make.

Starting with the negative cognition and a target memory that is connected to the trauma, “It was my fault that he would hit me” and an image of Dad, the client then moves his or her eyes back and forth, guided by the therapist’s moving hand, for a set of about 30 seconds. The eye movement is stopped, and the client reports briefly what thoughts and feelings emerge. It is much like a meditation, where there are no rights or wrongs, only observation of experiences as they present themselves.

Some people get new memories, some have emotional reactions, some feel body sensations, some come to new understandings, some see symbolic images, and sometimes not much shifts. The process is repeated until the client comes to a resolution, where the material that arises has a positive feeling. He/she can then go back to the original trauma with the positive cognition, “He had no right to do that.” This resolution can come quickly or take some time, and there is no way of knowing in advance.

The “Desensitization and Reprocessing” part refers to this shift in relationship to the trauma. It can be re-experienced without the same emotional charge and held in a context of deeper understanding. The Vietnam vet can go back to the bloody battlefield without the fear and anguish, and realize that it was not his fault that his buddies died. The child who was criticized unmercifully can recall the experiences with equanimity and realize that he or she is actually not worthless.

Why it works is open to speculation, since there is no obvious connection between moving the eyes and releasing the emotional tension. One theory, called the Accelerated Information Processing model, is that highly charged events are not processed by our nervous systems properly and get “stuck” in some way. The back and forth eye movement, also found in REM sleep when we dream, stimulates the right and left sides of the brain and triggers our natural reprocessing to enable us to resolve the traumatic overload

It does work. I have had someone go through in 45 minutes memories of being molested at the age of 8 and walk out with the feeling “I’m ok just as I am.” Another client could let go of needing to do a perfect job at work when he got how he was never able to please his father. A woman was able to finish off a relationship that had ended painfully many months before.

EMDR is a powerful tool for reducing the power of the past and for moving out of stuck places in life.