Eye-Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is an evidence-based treatment for working with distressing and traumatic memories. The theory behind EMDR is that the brain cannot process memories related to overwhelming events, and so it stores them in an unprocessed form.
When these memories are reactivated, the emotions, thoughts and physical sensations that were present when the original traumatic event occurred are experienced all over again.
In preparing for EMDR, your therapist will educate you about how EMDR works and will help you identify the distressing memories, the images attached to those memories, your negative thoughts about those moments and the emotions and physical sensations associated with the memories. Your therapist will then carefully guide you through all of these aspects of your trauma, while guiding you in left-to-right eye movements. You will be asked to just notice anything that comes up in the memories, physical sensations and emotions as well as notice if there are any changes. This process will continue until the memories are less distressing.
The side-to-side eye movements used in EMDR are called bilateral stimulation (BLS) and it has been found to enhance memory processing. One theory indicates this helps because the eye movements are similar to what happens in REM sleep. You may notice that something that is bothering you before you go to bed can be less bothersome when you wake up.
Many patients prefer EMDR to other evidence-based treatments for trauma because they do not have to go into detail about the memories of traumatic events. Also, other types of treatment require extensive time outside of the therapy session for “homework.” There is no homework involved in EMDR, and compared to other treatment models, the success rates are higher and the dropout rates are lower.