You may have heard of EMDR and wonder what it is and how it works. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late ‘80s. Her first publication came out in 1989. Since then, it has been demonstrated to dramatically accelerate the process of change. It works with trauma and other experiences of adversity as well, such as feelings of low-self esteem or powerlessness.
How Does It Work?
We learn about who we are supposed to be by interacting with the world. When we find ourselves in a situation in which we are vulnerable to negative influence and are encouraged to see ourselves as lacking, we can develop a story about ourselves as bad, unworthy, powerless, unlovable, etc. Then, in a perverse example of selection bias, we start to collect evidence to support negative stories about ourselves. The more we repeat that story, the stronger it becomes and the more “normal” it seems. We don’t even notice that we are repeating that story any more. It’s just playing on a loop in the background.
During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, we sort through our day and integrate new learning. When sleep is interrupted after a stressful day, that processing is incomplete. Learning and mood balancing functions are disrupted. Using eye movement while thinking about a stressful event appears to allow that processing that was interrupted to complete.
The exact mechanism of EMDR is still somewhat mysterious, but by focusing on an external stimulus, like eye movement, while recalling a disturbing event from the past, you have a foothold in the present that allows you to interrupt the old story and begin to take in new information, such as, “I’m safe right now” or “I handled that situation pretty well” or “There are people who care about me”. The more you rehearse and support the new story, the stronger it becomes