What is EMDR?

Introducing EMDR

Think about all the birthdays you have had in your life. There are probably a few that stick out, and others that you can barely remember. The birthdays that you can envision clearly stand out because something happened that day that made your brain hold on to the experience. Maybe it positively changed you forever, or maybe it impacted you negatively, and though you’d like to forget, you can’t.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an intervention that was created by Francine Shapiro in 1987. Initially, it was used for people who had experienced one incident that was highly traumatizing, such as a car accident, a sexual assault, or a robbery. Over the years, Shaprio has developed the technique further and expanded the theory. Thus, EMDR has taken on a new role in the world of psychotherapy. Along with its traditional uses, EMDR is now a tool for decreasing anxieties associated with relationships. Research indicates it as highly effective in increasing a person’s ability to form secure and loving attachments.

It is also used to target memories that aren’t traditionally categorized as “traumatic.” Let’s take the example of the birthday. Say during your 7th birthday party, a friend laughs when your caregiver brings out your cake for the big birthday song moment. You are hit with a wave of embarrassment. Now let’s say that every birthday since then you always get a little nervous right around cake time. The stress feels so high sometimes that you might not want to celebrate your birthday at all. EMDR theory asserts that your 7th birthday memory is still haunting you in the present.

A trained EMDR therapist will “target” that 7th birthday memory by asking you to verbalize all the details of the experience. By using eye movements, sound, or physical tapping the therapist creates bilateral stimulation, and in doing so, you begin accessing both sides of your brain at once. During this process, the therapist periodically stops the bilateral stimulation and the client verbally free associates any thoughts, physical sensations, or feelings that arise. The therapist continues bilateral stimulation after each free association. Eventually, the strong emotional remembrance associated with the experience starts fading, and the client has a new understanding of the memory. As a result, present day experiences become more manageable and less anxiety provoking.

I use EMDR to target memories that are traumatic or cause relational difficulties. I have found that using EMDR in this way can decrease anxiety associated with the anger, pain, and shame so common in relationships. It helps a parent overcome hurdles that might be affecting their ability to be present with their child. It helps couples overcome trust issues. I believe certain experiences cause us to have a narrow definition of ourselves and that we all deserve to expand that definition into one that works better for us. I use EMDR to “target” memories that affect self confidence and self-efficacy. I hope this article helped answer the question, “What is EMDR?”. For more information, ask me or visit the EMDR associations website at www.emdria.org.


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Patricia O’Laughlin, licensed therapist and Art Therapist, providing EMDR and therapy to individuals, couples, teens, and adults. Silver Lake/Los Feliz, Los Angeles. therapy@patriciaolaughlin.com or (323)761-2221.