EMDR is used for individuals who have experienced severe trauma that remains unresolved. According to Shapiro, when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it may overwhelm normal cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms. The memory and associated stimuli are inadequately processed, and stored in an isolated memory network. The goal of EMDR therapy is to process these distressing memories, reducing their lingering effects, and allowing clients to develop more adaptive coping mechanisms. This is done in an eight-step protocol that includes having clients recall distressing images while receiving one of several types of bilateral sensory input, including side-to-side eye movements. The use of EMDR was originally developed to treat adults suffering from PTSD; however, it is also used to treat addiction and other conditions, as well as children.
Francine Shapiro first developed EMDR upon noticing that certain eye movements reduced the intensity of disturbing thought. She then conducted a scientific study in 1989. The success rate of that first study using trauma victims was posted in the Journal of Traumatic Stress. Shapiro noted that, when she was experiencing a disturbing thought, her eyes were involuntarily moving rapidly. She noticed further that, when she brought her eye movements under voluntary control while thinking a traumatic thought, anxiety was reduced. Shapiro developed EMDR therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She speculated that traumatic events “upset the excitatory/inhibitory balance in the brain, causing a pathological change in the neural elements.”
EMDR is now recommended as an effective treatment for trauma in the Practice Guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association.