EMDR, What Is It?

EMDR – Weird Therapy

[embed]https://youtu.be/yLXTDw2mJ0Y[/embed] How many of you have heard of EMDR? EMDR stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” Presumably, none of you before 1978, when the late Dr. Francine Shapiro took her “walk in Central Park” and discovered EMDR. At the time she named it EMD, or “Eye Movement Desensitization.” The story about her walk in Central Park has now been elevated by EMDR therapists to a legend. It is said, she was recovering from cancer, and was consumed by worry and a myriad of other concerns, and decided to take a walk through Central Park to clear her head. And it worked. Since she was a consummate researcher, she then began to wonder WHY it cleared her head? Or rather, she reasoned the walk did not clear her head of what she had been thinking; it cleared her head of the disturbance she felt when she thought about those things.

The Walk

She eventually settled on the simple act of her eyes going back and forth across her path as she walked, as being the mechanism which reduced the feelings of upset she had been experiencing before her walk. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were walking and moving my eyes back and forth across my path, I’d probably run into a tree. But, it worked for her and a truly remarkable therapy was born. In the intervening years, EMDR has evolved into a useful therapy for reducing or clearing a number of mental problems.


It was “product tested” or scientifically validated, in 1979 with a number of volunteers, including Vietnam War veterans and sexual assault survivors with diagnosed PTSD. The trials verified EMDR worked to significantly reduce and/or eliminate PTSD symptoms. Since then, it has been verified as being very useful or useful for a number of other mental problems, to include anxiety disorders, OCD, panic disorders, and to a lesser degree, depression and substance abuse problems, as well as a number of other problems. “To a lesser degree” means: it still works, it just may take longer.

Researched treatment

EMDR therapy has become one of the most thoroughly researched mental health treatments available at this time. There have been several spin-offs (and knock-offs) created in the past few years. The efficacy of these late arrivals has not been thoroughly proven yet, but admittedly, they appear to be at least partially successful in their treatment applications. However, they cannot legally be called EMDR.

Back to EMDR

Its concept is based on a theory called the AIP model, or the Adaptive Information Processing model. In very simple terms, that assumes your body is designed by nature to heal; your mind is part of your body, therefore, it is designed to heal as well. Daily, the vast majority of all your thoughts and experiences are captured and held in short-term memory. At night, while you are asleep, your brain processes all the millions of bits of information stored throughout the day, decides which are necessary or helpful to your continued well-being and safety, and puts them into long-term storage, which means they are linked to other, similar memories, to ease recall. A lot of the extra elements of the memory are removed; most of what is stored now is just data. There may be a little supplemental “footnote” saying this is a good memory, but most emotion, physical sensations and what you think about the memory are removed.


What your brain decides is not necessary for your continued well-being and safety is “metabolized” or simply goes away. You may have experienced something like this when you recall waking in the morning with remnants of a weird dream, and after a few minutes, you can’t remember what it was. Your memory of that weird dream has been “metabolized” or allowed to dissolve. Those positive memories or facts are held in a positive memory network. On the other hand, you may have had some unpleasant experiences, a traffic accident, an assault or losing someone special. The pain and suffering you are feeling can be intense, and the brain has difficulty clearing away the intense feeling associated with the memory. For some reason, not yet clear to researchers, these memories will not metabolize, or “go away” as do the other unneeded, more benign memories.

Four elements

Because they resist processing, and to protect your mental wellbeing, they are stored with ALL their disturbing elements in a different memory network specially held for disturbing memories. These disturbing memories have at least four characteristics: a usually vivid VISUAL memory of the experience; when you see that visual memory in your mind’s eye, you may have a NEGATIVE COGNITION or thought or feeling about yourself; you generally feel a strong EMOTION and along with the strong emotion, you can feel that strong emotion in some part of your body as a BODY SENSATION. EMDR therapists use these four characteristics of a disturbing memory to help bring it up into the client’s awareness. To military members, I talk about the memory being like a “pop-up target” on a rifle range. It is now ready to be engaged and destroyed.

EMDR does not erase memories

For therapy to progress, it is necessary for the client to become intensely aware of the disturbing memory to be able to “process” the disturbing memory, or strip off the feelings of disturbance, usually leaving only the visual memory and a “footnote” that this was once a disturbing memory. EMDR DOES NOT ERASE MEMORIES, it only removes the feelings of disturbance when the memory is again assessed. This creates some strange circumstances for therapists. An extremely disturbing memory has had all of its disturbance removed, and now the client cannot remember how disturbed he or she once was. (There is just no appreciation for a job well done).

Disturbing details

A client probably has spent a lot of time and energy trying to forget or not think of a disturbing memory, and now this therapist is telling you to remember it and all its disturbing details? How can a client stand it? This is part of what is called the Preparation Phase, in which the therapist teaches the client relaxation techniques and ways to decompress after (re-)experiencing a disturbing memory. After this phase, if the client feels ready to take on (and eliminate the disturbance from) this memory, further preparation will take place. In preparation to do an EMDR therapy session, a disturbing memory is brought to the forefront of a client’s awareness utilizing the recollection of the four characteristics: visual, negative thought, emotion, emotional sensation.


The therapist will begin what is called “Bi-Lateral Stimulation” or BLS. There are several techniques for BLS, which will be discussed with the client and decided upon before therapy begins: One method is eye movements. The therapist’s fingers or hand is held about 12 inches in front of a client’s face, the client holds their head steady, and the therapist moves the hand approximately shoulder width to either side of the client’s face. The therapist sings “Staying Alive”, the song by the Bee Gees (to him/herself). (That’s the speed and rhythm needed).

Bringing up the memory

The client brings the memory up into his/her awareness and follows the movement of the hand or fingers for about 24 passes, back and forth. The therapist stops. This has been one set of BLS. The therapist tells the client to take a deep breath and then asks what the client notices. This means the client reports to the therapist what he/she is seeing, or thinking, or feeling, physically and/or emotionally.

Man, this is weird

If what is reported is different from what the client began with at the beginning of the set, the therapist knows the processing is working. I tell the client before we begin the first set, that for about the first 10 or 15 seconds, you’ll be thinking, “Man, this is weird!” After that, you’ll be in your head and the processing is beginning.

Other techniques

Another BLS technique is tapping. Tapping can be the therapist tapping with his/her fingertips on the back of the client’s hand, on the tops or sides of the knees. During the current Covid adventure, the therapist asks the client to tap on their own upper arms, shoulders or knees. (Again, “Man, this is weird!”) A third method involves handheld electronic pulsators or Tappers, which vibrate alternately back and forth. These can be adjusted for intensity of vibration and speed.


As for efficacy, research has shown that eye movements tend to move disturbing memories along the fastest (they clear fastest), then tapping, then Tappers/pulsators. During this Covid time, it has been a very pleasant surprise to this therapist that the client self-tapping has been very effective in processing disturbance from memories.

It's official

Oh, yeah. How did EMD become EMDR? Scientific research determined that not only did the BLS reduce and remove the disturbance from disturbing memories, but during and after the disturbance has been removed, the brain REPROCESSES or rebalances/reevaluates how memories have been perceived, usually to a more positive orientation. So now it is known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In other words, you really aren’t a loser, you just had bad parents.

It's from Austin

Interesting fact: The world headquarters of the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) is located here in Austin, TX. If you would like a separate explanation of EMDR, I recommend you go to WebMD for a fair, balanced, and easy to understand explanation of EMDR.

Join Our Newsletter

Join our newsletter and be the first on your block to receive fresh, relevant, bi-monthly, blogs from Samaritan Center.

[contact-form][contact-field label='Do you have questions or comments for Jack?' type='textarea' required='1'/][contact-field label='Name' type='name' required='1'/][contact-field label='Email' type='email' required='1'/][/contact-form]