Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic treatment developed by Francine Shapiro. EMDR was originally developed to treat the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then it has been extensively researched and found to be effective for many psychological difficulties.
The theory that underlies EMDR is Adaptive Information Processing (AIP). AIP states that that our minds have developed to extract meaning and understanding from experiences that we can apply to future decision making. An example of this is: I burned my hand on a hot stove when I was young. It must have been very upsetting when it happened, but I barely remember the event now. My mind extracted the important part – stoves are hot, and released the unimportant – how upsetting it was to be burned.
Unfortunately, our minds natural ability to process experiences can be overwhelmed by events that are sudden, intense, chronic or that occur when we are young. Our experience of that unprocessed event stays stuck in “state specific memory”. State specific memory is a memory that is still held as each sense experienced it. That is why those unprocessed events are often remembered as just a smell, or just a sound, or just a vision.
Our mind still wants to process that experience. Because of that, our mind does things that we experience as decidedly unpleasant. Our mind might bring a state specific memory up when something similar occurs in our current life (this is a form of flashback). We may repeat behaviors or choices that result in experiences that are similar to the unprocessed experience, because our mind is hoping that this time it will succeed at processing the event and resolve both the original stuck memory and the current experience.
An EMDR trained therapist intentionally activate the brain’s existing processing system. The therapist guides the client through the intentional application of the clients natural processing system to that stuck experience. With the therapist’s help the client is able to finally succeed at processing that event.
So, what’s with the back and forth eye movement?
It is believed that the mind does its naturally occurring adaptive information processing while we are asleep. We spend a portion of our sleep each night in the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage. During REM sleep our eyes dart back and forth under our eyelids very quickly. When an EMDR trained therapist uses back and forth eye movement (or another form of bilateral stimulation) they are activating the mind’s information processing system.