Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Another Type of Psychotherapy

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Dr. Francine Shapiro, clinical psychologist, is credited with forming a type of psychotherapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). It is a treatment that is especially effective in the treatment of all types of traumas including PTSD. However, this is a form of treatment that works differently from either Psychodynamic or Cognitive Behavior Psychotherapy.

In Psychodynamic Therapy, the patient talks about past events that caused present day problems. The therapist helps the patient understand how they are reacting to present day problems as if they were still in the past. Based on that, the patient, with the help of the therapist, explores new and healthy ways of resolving problems in the present.


In Cognitive Behavior Therapy, the patient keeps a record of events that happen in the present along with the thought and feeling they have as a reaction to those events. Based on the idea that thought patterns bring about emotional or feeling states, the therapist teaches the patient to develop healthier and more realistic ways to think when problems occur. Those new thought patterns help prevent depression and anxiety feeling states.

EMDR works very differently from either of these. In the therapy the patient recalls recent and, or, past distressing and traumatic events along with the emotional reactions to those events. Dr. Shapiro had noticed that, when patients talked about stressful events their eyes moved back and forth very rapidly. In the treatment process she discovered that by changing the eye movements, symptoms of panic and emotions connected with trauma were relieved.

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Basically, in this therapy, when the patient talks briefly about the traumatic event and the eye movements are modified, these events are changed from episodic memory into semantic memory. In episodic memory, the individual remembers events along with their emotional reactions to those events. In other words, there is a reliving of what happened. Each time the event is recalled there is a similar disturbing reaction to what happened, even if the trauma was from long ago. In semantic memory, the event is changed from reliving the trauma into a verbal memory without the emotions attached. Once semantic, the memory no longer carries it’s emotional sting. This happens because the patient has digested the trauma so that it no longer has the meaning it once did.

In an EMDR session, a patient remembers a trauma. The therapist then moves his or her fingers back and forth in front of the face of the patient. The finger movements influence the way the eyes move when the disturbing is remembered.

While research shows that this is an effective treatment not everyone agrees. However, despite the debate over EMDR, it is being used with good results according to those therapists and their patients.

Therapists undergo a specific type of training for EMDR and must be certified by the EMDR institute. If you are seeking an EMDR therapist make certain that they show you proof of their training before you get involved. One person I know of reported that they want to this type of “therapist” who used electrodes with shocks. This is not EMDR and it is not any psychotherapy that I am aware of. Always, buyer beware. Always ask for credentials. An EMDR therapist must be a licensed psychologist, social worker or psychiatrist who then has the specific training for this procedure.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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