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EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy. No one quite understands why it works, but as more practitioners adopt the method, most scientists concede that is does.

EMDR is a therapeutic tool, where patients remember traumatic memories while focusing in on the moving hand or light of a therapist. It is used in the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder, and increasingly, in addiction treatment. It has also shown efficacy in the treatment of chronic pain, depression, eating disorders, stress, recovery from sexual abuse and poor self esteem.

Why Do Negative Memories Haunt Us?

Negative or traumatic memories can cause a psychological and physiological response upon recall. When we remember something very traumatic, the response in the body and mind can be extreme.

Symptoms of PTSD, for example, can include insomnia, depression, irritability, emotional numbness, shame and self destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse.

Most people will try to repress (not think about) the traumatic experience, to minimize these unpleasant reactions; but this repression only exacerbates the severity of the symptoms, and lessens our ability to control them.

A common therapeutic technique for PTSD is cognitive behavioral therapy, in which patients mentally re-experience the traumatic event, and learn healthier ways to deal with the stress that the memory creates. Through this type of exposure therapy, the influence of the memory diminishes, and symptoms fade.

EMDR works in a similar ways, but its proponents argue that it gets the same results as cognitive behavioral therapy, more quickly.

How Is EMDR Used?

During an EMDR session, the therapist will ask the patient to think of a very positive memory, as well as very negative or traumatic memories. The therapist will ask the patient to remember in detail the experience, or memory, and at the same time will ask the patient to visually follow a quickly moving hand or light.

The therapist will alternate between positive and negative memories, and continue to do so until the intensity of the emotional response to a negative memory is significantly reduced. This reduction in the influence these memories has on our bodies and minds is enduring, and EMDR therapy can erase the legacy of traumatic memories forever. You still remember the experience, but no longer is the memory associated with extreme psychological or physical reactions. You can finally move on.

Why Does EMDR Work?

No one knows, not for sure anyway. A relatively new therapeutic technique, EMDR lacks a significant base of scientific study, although preliminary studies do replicate the positive effects of anecdotal reports.

Clinicians hypothesize that EMDR helps the mind to finally process these traumatic memories completely, and once processed, these memories no longer threaten us as we recall them.

Some speculate that the movement of the eyes during EMDR mimics that of rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep, a known informational processing period. Others think that moving the eyes laterally back and forth allows the brain to consolidate the memory between the left and right hemispheres of the mind.

Adding to the confusion though, recent research with blind patients has shown that eye movements may not even be necessary, and that hand clapping may work equally well.

Why is EMDR Used in Drug and Alcohol Rehab?

Therapists love EMDR because of its rapidity of effect. Since time spent in rehab is often limited, a therapeutic tool like EMDR allows for intensive sessions that offer results, quickly.

Many substance abusers drink or drug, in part due to past traumas and EMDR may help these patients to limit the influence these past traumas have on their present reality.

These emotional traumas contribute to relapse, and reducing their legacy and impact increases the likelihood of long term success and sobriety.

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Page last updated Jan 09, 2018

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