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Eye Movement & Desensitization


EMDR was stumbled upon by Francine Shapiro while she was in graduate school studying to be a clinical psychologist. She found that if she flicked her eyes back and forth, in movements resembling those that our eyes make when we dream, at the same time that she held disturbing thoughts or images or feelings in her mind, that the thoughts and feelings quickly resolved. Excited by the possibilities, she tried the technique on some volunteers who were friends of hers. She found the same effect to hold true.

This technique became the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation in 1989. In it 22 survivors of rape, childhood abuse, and war (Vietnam vets) were given one 60 minute EMDR session. All of these participants reported that their memories lost most of their devastating emotional charge, and that their negative self-assessments had largely disappeared. The effect was maintained at a three-month and a three-year follow up. Subsequent research has supported the usefulness of EMDR.

EMDR has been found useful since then to a wide variety of applications. Among them are grief, performance effectiveness, compulsive over-eating, substance abuse, etc.


EMDR treatment consists of eight essential phases, each varying in length depending upon the individual client.

Phase One

Phase one consists of history taking, and determining the client's suitability for this technique. If the client has a history of suicide attempts, a current high level of unrelated stress in their life, no support system, or a medical condition that could be adversely effected by stress, the technique should not be used with them. This is because sometimes major traumas which had not been available to memory surface and things become briefly worse before they get better. It is important to determine before treatment begins that the client can tolerate, briefly, additional amounts of stress in their lives.

Phase Two

Phase two is the preparation phase. In it the client is introduced to the treatment, and prepared for the possibility that things may become worse before they get better. The client may be taught relaxation techniques to use between session should they become uncomfortable.

Phase Three

Phase three consists of the assessment. A memory or image is chosen, and the accompanying negative self-attribution is identified. Examples of these would be, "I am bad/worthless/unlovable". The client then identifies a positive thought with which they would like to replace the negative one, and rates how true it feels to be. They then hold the image and the negative thought in their mind and rates the amount of discomfort.

Phase Four

Phase four consists of desensitization. The eye movements are done in sets, the client tracking the therapist's fingers for periods of time varying from 10 seconds to a full minute. These are repeated until the level of discomfort equals zero.

Phase Five

Phase five is the installation phase, which focuses upon replacing the negative thought with the positive one. Thus the client believes the positive thought when remembering the previously disturbing image.

Phase Six

In phase six the client holds the image and the positive cognition in their mind and scans the body in order to determine any remaining degree of tension. If any are found, then these body tensions are targeted during following sets of eye movements.

Phase Seven

Phase seven consists of closure. In it, the client is reminded of the various things they may experience between sessions, such as disturbing feelings, dreams, memories, etc. They are encouraged to keep a log of these for future treatment.

Phase Eight

Phase eight is reevaluation. Previously accessed targets are checked for resolution, and to assess if the treatment effects have been maintained. New images or memories are then targeted using the same eight-phase procedure.


  • After the client has gone through these steps, the previously disturbing memories should be altered.
  • The image may change in content or appearance, thoughts may have changed, and the emotions often lessened in physical intensity.
  • The client can now feel that the memory is part of the past, and not be doomed to repeat it in the present.
  • After treatment many people report that they feel as though a slate has been wiped clean.
  • Other positive effects are frequently reported, as in improved competence, mood, attitude, or self-appraisal.

Comments on EMDR by Professionals

"EMDR assists survivors in the immediate aftermath of violent trauma by breaking through walls off denial, shock, grief, and anger. Ideal for those who have been unable to forget past traumatic life events, as it allows for a rapid processing of even deeply rooted memories, giving individuals back control of their lives and emotions."

Dusty Bowencamp, RN CTR, Disaster Mental Health, American Red Cross

"EMDR is a significant component of the Trauma Recovery Program at the Menninger Clinic"

Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic

"EMDR quickly opens new windows of reality, allowing people to see solutions within themselves that they never knew were there. And it's a therapy where the client is very much in charge, which can be particularly meaningful when people are recovering from having their power taken away by abuse and violation."

Laura S. Brown, Ph.D., University of Washington

A life saving process for battered women . .everyone who has experienced the psychological pain of abuse, or knows someone who has, should know about EMDR."

Lenore Walker. Ed.D., ABPP, Domestic Violence Institute

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