Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a treatment that can resolve long-standing and recent trauma.
During EMDR, the client is asked to hold in mind an image of the trauma, a negative self-cognition, negative emotions, and related physical sensations about the trauma. While doing so, the client is instructed to move his or her eyes quickly and laterally back and forth, following the therapists’ fingers or scanner, which desensitizes the troubling material and allows positive cognitions to replace the negative cognitions. Theoretically, EMDR evokes a mind-brain state that enables traumatic memories to be effectively processed and become integrated with more adaptive information. While there is no well-supported account of how eye-movements or other forms of bilateral stimulation alter clients’ experience of traumatic memories, this bilateral stimulation can reduce the vividness, emotionality, and completeness of unpleasant or traumatic memories, therefore driving improvements in how individuals experience these events. One theory is that this dual-task component of EMDR disrupts a memory image in the working memory, which then leads to the client feeling a greater distance from the associated traumatic experience. As traumatic memory is desensitized, the general functioning of the client is improved, resulting in less anxiety and depression, fewer somatic symptoms, and improved self-esteem.
While we do not yet understand in detail how any form of psychotherapy works, EMDR appears to be a viable treatment option for trauma and other disturbing events. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense Practice Guidelines highly recommend EMDR for the treatment of trauma, and is also highly endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association as well as the National Institute of Mental Health.
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