EMDR is technique for dramatically reducing (and sometimes eliminating) the impact of painful memories by remembering them while also experiencing bilateral stimulation of the brain. The client holds alternately vibrating hand paddles to bring awareness back and forth from one side of the body to the other, while being supported in the warmth of our therapeutic relationship to follow whatever associations freely arise in connection to a traumatic memory. With most clients there is a rapid and significant decrease in their level of suffering about a painful life experience — in some cases the improvement seems almost magical.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a term that dates back to the earliest days of doing this treatment when we used to get clients to move their eyes back and forth by waving our fingers in front of them. (I can tell you that my arm used to get really tired!) Since then, we’ve discovered that the treatment works just as well by auditory (alternate tones in headphones) or kinesthetic stimulation either with hand paddles or teaching the client to alternately tap their knees.

EMDR has good research data demonstrating its effectiveness. The treatment is recommended by the American Psychiatric Association as “an effective treatment for trauma”, and placed in the “A” category as “strongly recommended” for trauma treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department.

Although the core DBT community has a competitive attitude towards EMDR, preferring the Foa exposure techniques for trauma treatment, I have usually found EMDR to be faster. My experience is corroborated by clinical trials showing that EMDR achieves results equivalent to cognitive behavioral and exposure techniques in a shorter period and without the many hours of homework required by CBT. It may true, as some DBT trainers have stated, that the primary effect in EMDR is realized from the bringing of awareness to the memory, but there are studies that indicate that the bilateral stimulation has additional effects on the brain itself.