Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

What can you tell me about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)? I went through a traumatic experience when I was young, and the memory still haunts me. It can be triggered by the smallest sensations – for example, the smell of the gardenias that were growing in our yard at the time. All the negative feelings associated with the event come flooding back, and I'm overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. A friend said that EMDR might help, but it sounds creepy – like hypnosis or mind control. As a Christian, I don't want to get involved in anything like that.

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There’s nothing creepy or spooky about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). And it’s not connected with anything that might be considered unbiblical or spiritually unsound.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is neurologically based. It’s a nonverbal therapeutic technique that uses the brain’s Rapid Eye Movement cycle (REM) – the cycle your central nervous system uses during sleep to refresh, renew, and reprocess – to re-wire negative memories. EMDR has been used to treat PTSD in war veterans. It’s one of the most effective and fastest forms of trauma therapy known in the field of psychology today.

You mentioned that your traumatic memory can be set off by the fragrance of gardenias. This is actually the principle upon which EMDR is based. When we experience trauma, the brain essentially “freezes” a sensory-based image of the event in our memory. This phenomenon is closely related to “fight or flight,” the physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.

EMDR uses left-to-right “bi-lateral brain stimulation” (rapid eye movements, tapping, buzzing sounds, or electrical pulses) to get the two hemispheres of the brain “talking to each other.” The goal is to “unfreeze” the memory and reprocess the entire event, together with all of its associated sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.

What’s the history of EMDR?

EMDR is not a faddish “fly-by-night” development. It was discovered by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1989. One day Ms. Shapiro happened to be thinking about some disturbing memories while she was out walking. As she walked, she realized that her eyes were moving back and forth rapidly while she thought about these memories. Later, she discovered that the memories were no longer as disturbing as they had been prior to her walk. This is how EMDR was “born.”

How does EMDR work?

The process is fairly simple. You spend one or two sessions with a qualified therapist laying the groundwork – talking about the traumatic event and going through all the thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, associated with it. After this initial assessment, your therapist will lead you through the following steps:

    1. First you’ll identify a “snapshot” image of the event – something that represents the most memorable aspect of the trauma.


    1. Next you’ll decide how disturbing this image is on a scale of 1 to 10.


    1. Then you’ll identify where in your body you feel the disturbance; the negative belief about yourself that you associate with this memory; and the positive belief with which you’d like to replace it.


  1. At this point your counselor will guide you through a directed and controlled process of holding the image in your mind while undergoing bilateral brain stimulation. You’ll be encouraged to “put” the memory in a “safe place” – for example, an imaginary box – where you can “watch” it as an objective observer, noticing how you think and feel as the treatment proceeds.

This process will be repeated every other week until you and your therapist are satisfied that the desired results have been achieved. This may take up to 10 sessions altogether, but it could require as few as three or four.

The goal of the procedure is not to change the memory but to rewire your reaction to it so that its power over you is broken. During and after the treatment you may experience vivid dreams and heightened emotions, but there is no danger of “trauma flood” as long as you are working with a licensed, certified therapist who is properly trained in the use of the appropriate protocol.

Who can use EMDR?

EMDR is not for everyone. Most experts agree that children younger than 10 should not undergo this treatment. And generally speaking, it is not intended for use with patients who are currently going through trauma of any kind, including abuse, domestic violence, psychosis, or drug addiction.

EMDR is designed specifically for the treatment of traumatic memories. It rewires mental images of past experiences that can now be regarded from a more or less objective point of view. It will not succeed unless the brain is strong enough to participate in reprocessing the trauma.


If you’d like to discuss this at greater length, don’t hesitate to call our counselors for a free consultation. They’d be more than happy to speak with you over the phone, and they can also provide referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area.

Copyright © 2018, Focus on the Family.

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