An Overview of EMDR, Updated 4.25.19



                                      An Overview of EMDR, Updated 4/25/19

Howard Lipke, PhD

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a method of psychotherapy developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro as a treatment for psychological distress associated with trauma. It began when  she chanced to notice a connection between a decrease in her own emotional distress from a troubling concern after having spontaneously moved her eyes back and forth. Shapiro then developed and informally tested a therapeutic structure around the eye movements integrating aspects of,  at least, imaginal exposure, cognitive therapy, psychodynamic therapy, and mindfulness teachings, and adding an early positive psychology idea, Shapiro developed a treatment, which she informally tested. Shapiro (1989a) first systematically tested her work in a wait list control study of 21 subjects recruited from local mental health centers, including a DVA veteran readjustment center. Remarkably, all of her first 21 subjects showed profound single session desensitization effects. In addition, Shapiro (1989b) published a case study in a journal edited by Joseph Wolpe, an originator of behavior therapy, in which Wolpe, in an editorial footnote, endorsed Shapiro’s rapid effects from his own informal replication.

In response to Shapiro’s unique findings of effectiveness, her attempts to ensure that the method would be taught competently, and the odd nature of the eye movement component, considerable controversy erupted in which academic psychologists, in particular, publicly criticized many aspects of EMDR.  Despite this controversial beginning, EMDR has been validated by numerous well-designed outcome studies, which have appeared in scientific peer-reviewed journals. As a result of these EMDR has been endorsed as an effective treatment for PTSD by many major US and International  scientific and professional mental health organizations, including the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS; Foa et al. 2009), the US Veterans Administration/Department of Defense (2004), the American Psychiatric Association (2004), SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (October, 2010) and rating bodies in England (Bisson & Andrew,2007), Northern Ireland (CREST 2003), the Netherlands (Dutch National Steering Committee Guidelines Mental Health Care, 2003), France (INSERM, 2004), and Israel (Bleich et al., 2002).. Other references for the specifics of the research and ratings are available at or

Analogue studies, and now an animal study, have unequivocally supported the value of the most controversial aspect, the eye movement activity. These studies have demonstrated the role of the eye movement in reducing emotional responsivity and vividness of imagery for personal emotionally evocative memories (Andrade, Kavanaugh, & Baddeley 1997; Gunter & Bodner, 2008; Kavanagh, Freese, Andrade, & May, 2001; Maxfield, Melnyk, & Hayman, 2008; Sharpley, Montgomery, & Scalzo,1996; Van den Houts, Muris, Salemink, & Kindt, 2001).

More recently in a 2019 study published in Nature, Baek (et al. 2019) reported that fear conditioning in rats was more fully extinguished when they engaged in EMDR type eye movements  than with other extinction learning interventions.  The Baek et al results also found a psychophysiological path involving the Colliculus, Thalamus and Amygdala.which appeared to account for the effects of the bilateral eye movement.

In clinical dismantling studies the role of eye movement now is supported, to the extent that a least one long term critic (McNally, 2013) of the role of em now acknowledges their active effect. A leading candidate to explain the role of eye movement has been the idea that if it is elicited while the traumatic memory is brought to  “working memory” (see Maxfield et al. 2008) it affects the way that memory is subsequently stored, or reconsolidated.  However, the recent Baek et al. study lends support to another early hypothesis (see Lipke, 1999) that the eye movement creates an “orienting response” that interferes with the conditional response created by the trauma experience and allows for natural memory processing of the event, from not-declarative (reliving memory) to declarative (historical/intellectual) memory.

Aspects of EMDR which, added to the positive outcome research, make it a candidate for treatment of choice for the psychological effects of trauma are, the high frequency of rapid therapeutic effects, the absence of requirement for disclosing the details of traumatic event or dwell on the painful memories, and the absence of a requirement for extensive client homework.

The Basics of EMDR Treatment

Shapiro has been careful to distinguish EMDR as a technique, from EMDR as a method of treatment, and then an overall approach to psychotherapy. As a technique for reducing distress related to traumatic incidents, as well as increasing adaptive consideration of these events, clients are asked bring to awareness a most painful image, a related belief about themselves (called the present or negative cognition, e.g. “ I am powerless”), and the emotions and body sensations currently associated with this target traumatic event. Asked to be aware of the preceding, clients are instructed to be mindful of what occurs to them as they follow the therapist’s hand with their eyes as it is moved back and forth about a foot and a half in front of the face, across the full range of vision for about 25 repetitions. The clients then, if willing, report the content of awareness at the time the eye movement stopped. (This lack of a requirement to report content is one of the attributes that makes EMDR particularly attractive to trauma survivors.) In the most straightforward cases eye movements are applied to the new content of awareness, and repeated until desensitization or processing is complete. For example, in the middle of a session one might find this interaction:

Client: Stupid, that was stupid, I don’t see how I ever could have done that.

Therapist: See what happens next (leads set of em) Let it go, Take a deep breath…What comes to you now?

Client: Now I am thinking about how I didn’t really have a good choice about what to do.

Therapist: Notice that. (set of em) Take a deep breath… What comes up now?

Client: I’m feeling a little calmer

Therapist: Okay, see what happens next. (leads set of em)

Also occurring prior to adding the eye movement, but not explicitly attended to when it begins, clients rate their level of distress when contemplating the worst moment of the traumatic event on a 0 – 10 version of Joseph Wolpe’s Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale. Clients are also asked to offer a thought they would prefer to have when remembering the traumatic event (called the preferred or positive cognition, e.g. “I dohave choices in life.”). The preferred cognition is rated on a “gut” level of believability from 1 to 7, as the person contemplates the target trauma.  These ratings taken, before the eye movement activity begins, are later used to help evaluate progress toward what Shapiro first thought of as desensitization, but later considered reprocessing of the trauma, (Hence the change of name from the original EMD) but might best be considered the continuation of processing.

Shapiro (2001) considers EMDR more than the technique described above. As a method of psychotherapy it is described as including 8 phases. These include all of what one would expect in psychotherapy for trauma related psychological problems, i.e.  problem identification, history taking, evaluation of coping ability, rapport building, explanation of treatment and stress management. Phases 3 and 4, described in the “technique” section above, are the core of treatment. Phases 5 and 6 involve activities aimed at making sure reprocessing is complete, that is that the memory of the target event is no longer maladaptively distressing, and if possible, whatever good that can come out of the event becomes dominant when the event is contemplated. Phase 7 involves closing a session, especially if the processing is not complete, and Phase 8 involves re-evaluation of the therapeutic work in the next session, and finally, termination considerations.  Also guiding treatment is what Shapiro refers to as the “three prong protocol”. This denotes the need to reprocess memories of past events, present situations in which the past event leads to maladaptive responses, and imagined possible future related problematical situations.

As an approach to therapy Shapiro considers EMDR to contain a philosophy of experience based psychopathology, embodied by what she currently refers to as the Adaptive Information Processing Model (AIP). According to the AIP, experience based psychopathology is caused by the memory of events being held in dysfunctional “neuro-networks”; natural adaptive information processing “accommodation and assimilation” has been blocked because of the overwhelming emotion associated with these events.

It should be noted that the reprocessed events need not be what is conventionally called trauma; seemingly innocuous events ( e.g. an off hand insult, at the wrong time) may, be taken as traumatic. This recognition of the emotional power of events considered outside of the conventional definition of trauma appears to be consistent with current thinking in the mental health field. (see Mol et al. 2005)

As life proceeds, ongoing eventsmay  trigger these memories, which she describes as being held in “state specific” form, and produce dysfunctional thoughts, emotions and behavioral responses. This aspect of the AIP has much in common with some earlier theories including the psychodynamic work on traumatic stress by Mardi Horowitz (1976). The AIP specifies that EMDR treatment is not considered complete until all dysfunctionally held memories are processed, and potentially  difficult future situations are attended to.

EMDR clinicians have observed that while clients are processing the target memory other memories with similar themes, not necessarily found in the reported history, may arise. They have reported this to be a feature significantly separating EMDR process from other methods they have used. (Lipke, 1995) The notation of connection of these memories is another key feature of the AIP. In the AIP traumatic memories are most fundamentally, though not exclusively, organized around and connected by affect.

The feature of the AIP least related to other theories and practice is the expectation that the reprocessing of memories can take place very quickly, as seen in Shapiro’s single session initial studies, as well as in later research. There is the expectation of a significant 1 – 3 session psychotherapeutic response in most clients with a single traumatic experience. In contrast expectations for other methods is a longer course of treatment, such as the 8 -12 sessions for prolonged exposure, with frequent homework added.  This rapid response is attributed to what has been referred to so far as the eye movement component. In fact, early in the development of EMDR such activities as alternating bilateral auditory or tactile stimulation have been used with clinical success.

The variety of activities which can substitute for eye movement led that aspect of EMDR to be conceptualized and referred to as either Bi-lateral Stimulation  (BLS) or Dual Awareness. While each of these attempts to abstractly define this part of therapy capture some aspect of it, each has some theoretical problems. However, other compelling descriptive names have not yet been suggested. If the above mentioned working memory hypothesis holds up to scrutiny, perhaps the activity will be called the “Working Memory Overload”, or the “Orienting Response Creating” component. Though these ideas might not explain the research results which show eye movement can lead to improved episodic memory, or the above mentioned tendency of EMDR to bring unexpected new associations, both troubling and redemptive, to awareness. It has been suggested, first by Shapiro, that the mechanism of effect may be the same as found in dreaming sleep, and later in a proposed discussion of possible psychophysiological mechanisms of effect by neurophysiologist Robert Stickgold (2002, 2008).  REM sleep has been found to produce remote associations. If this is the process then in EMDR, the unexpected troubling associations and “curative” material which comes to awareness would be like the  “remote” associations not normally accessed during traumatic nightmares and intrusive thoughts and images.

As we can see, while there is plenty of evidence of the psychological effects of eye movement, there are many open questions about the theoretical basis of EMDR. The answers as to underlying mechanisms may turn out to be quite complex.

EMDR Research

(Rather than present a lengthy list of references readers are directed to the lists in the guidelines and web sites mentioned in the first section of this paper)

Following Shapiro’s initial controlled study, numerous case studies and then experimental studies were conducted. In treatment of PTSD and Acute Stress Disorder these compared EMDR with wait list controls and with other methods of treatment. Subject populations have included children and adults, veterans and civilians, survivors of natural disasters, sexual abuse, rape, auto accidents, and the innumerable other causes of traumatic response. Results have been sustained on follow-up studies of one, three and 15 months. There have been several meta-analyses of EMDR effectiveness. When these have compared EMDR to other methods, EMDR has been found to produce progress similar to the most often highly rated treatment method, prolonged exposure. Some of these analyses have also supported the rapidity of effectiveness. EMDR efficacy is not likely attributable to researcher allegiance effects, as three controlled EMDR studies conducted by two different respected research teams, two under the leadership of Barbara Rothbaum (1997; et al 2006) a highly regarded exposure treatment advocate, have shown positive results for EMDR despite the fact that the principle investigator would not be considered an EMDR advocate,.

Studies have shown EMDR’s effectiveness with both acute and chronic traumatic responses. EMDR has also been reported to be used effectively for individuals with diagnoses other than PTSD including, depression, body dysmorphic disorder, chronic pain (including phantom limb pain), phobia, and performance anxiety.

 EMDR and Veterans

The first published research on EMDR included the presentation of successful treatment of some combat veteran subjects (Shapiro 1989a), as have several other published controlled (Carlson et al. 1998) and systematic clinical studies (e.g Graca et al. 2014;  and Botkin 1999).  It is much more common for veterans than for civilian trauma survivors to have psychological trauma related to their own actions. Hence, one aspect of EMDR which makes it particularly valuable in the treatment of combat related trauma is the way guilt and shame based traumatic memories are handled. While cognitive therapy and exposure require discussion of events which the veteran may not be willing to reveal, and exposure therapy is only designed for fear based trauma, EMDR does not have these limitations.   If a client has debilitating PTSD symptoms related to harming or killing, which he fears if revealed might leave him or her condemned by the therapist, or even in legal jeopardy, work on the most troubling issues, or even therapy itself, may often be avoided. With EMDR the therapist does not need to know the details. So, in establishing the image, negative cognition, feelings, and an alternative cognition, before eye movement begins, there can be a general discussion of how one finds redemption from acts, common in war, which are sometimes called unforgivable.  The result of such treatment is that oftentimes while the eye movement is taking place, the veteran comes to understand the situational causes of the action and/or the underlying fear or grief. The loss of those who died and his own loss of innocence may be mourned, .He or she may become much less likely to have to rely on anger as a defense, and be able to lead a much more productive and less destructive life.


Early criticisms of EMDR were strong and sometimes personal, as one might expect of a treatment in which a therapist from California waved her hand in front of the client’s face, and claimed substantial one-session effects for a problem sometimes considered intractable. The earliest criticisms were based on doubt that the reported outcomes were valid, and that if they were the therapeutic effects were substantially the result of other embedded established aspects of treatment, especially cognitive therapy and exposure.               Ignoring Shapiro’s insistence that EMDR be called “experimental” until replications of her research existed, and her promotion of research by offering free training to researchers, another line of criticism  (Baer et al. 1992; Herbert et al., 1995) was that the marketing of EMDR included excessive claims, and that the training policies reflected excessive propriety concerns, which limited full scientific exploration.

Many of the criticisms have been answered by the research supporting EMDR effectiveness, as well as that supporting the eye movement component of EMDR decreasing intensity of visual imagery and emotional intensity of memories with a strong affective component.  Other research has supported the role of eye movement in promoting intellectual information processing (Christman et al. 2003).  Also problematic to the critics who have claimed that the EMDR mechanism of effect is simply exposure, or the effects of the cognitive aspects of the protocol, is the amount of time dedicated to each of these activities. The amount of imaginal exposure is far less than such therapies prescribe, especially when considering that exposure homework is not part of the EMDR protocol, and the client is not encouraged to concentrate on the trauma material, but rather free associate to it. A claim that EMDR effects were attributable to mindfulness instructions would be at least as viable as the exposure claim.  Similarly, in many EMDR sessions the cognitive restructuring  activity is limited to the extent that in those cases it could not account to the level of change observed clinically or in experimental studies.

While the overwhelming majority of reports by psychotherapy rating bodies, as mentioned in the introduction, have supported EMDR as a front line treatment for PTSD, two have acknowledged it may have beneficial effects, but have been less enthusiastic in their praise. These were issued by the Institute (2007) of Medicine (IOM) and the American Psychological Association (2017). In both cases the evaluators excluded important supportive EMDR research. Most notable was their exclusion of the Wilson, Tinker and Becker (1997) study, showing strong 3 month and 15 month therapeutic effects. Both claimed that the study failed to establish that subjects met criteria for PTSD. However both ignored the fact that when results were analyzed for subjects who met criteria the positive effects were statistically comparable to the sample as a whole. Both rating teams were, as requested, given feedback on Wilson et al. as well other studies after distributing their preliminary reports, and both appeared to ignore the provided information.

The question of Shapiro’s proprietary control has been addressed by the establishment of an independent professional association, the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA), which oversees training,  Sometimes, however, critiques of control are from advocates of EMDR who object to what they consider EMDRIA’s excessive restrictions on content, the form of training requirements, as well as requirements to establish and maintain the various levels of “expertise” mandated by the organization.

In addition, Shapiro’s AIP model appears to have been elevated to being the foundational model of EMDR, and inextricable from it. Aspects of the AIP and its description of how psychological problems occur, how they can be can be ameliorated, and how personal growth can be promoted through EMDR may be valuable. However, there are aspects of the AIP  which leave it less successful in its stated role than EMDR is in its clinical effectiveness. One of these problems is that while, as mentioned above, in many cases cognitive restructuring is very limited and could not account for level of therapeutic change, in a minority of cases there is reliance on the kind of cognitive or interpretive interventions found in other traditions of psychotherapy. The AIP does not account for the cognitive restructuring which is part of the method as it is taught and practiced. Current representations of the AIP (e.g. Solomon and Shapiro, 2008) fail to conceptualize this integration of mechanisms of effect.  Another limitation of the AIP is the claim it is a psychophysiological model without offering a psychophysiological mechanism. (Lipke, 2009)


 Current Status

EMDR is widely accepted as an evidenced based treatment for PTSD and is used extensively Based on reports from various EMDR training organizations it is reasonable to suppose over 100,000 therapists have been trained worldwide. While it has considerable academic support outside the USA, it has not found a comfortable home in the academic world in the USA itself. Two of the reasons for this may be that many are still tied to their early strong criticism of EMDR, finding it difficult to accept the research results, and that Shapiro, and later, EMDRIA did not establish training policies which were seen as promoting the academic freedom expected in a university setting.  Nonetheless, research activity on EMDR is extensive and continues to grow, with studies often coming from research groups outside the United States, and covering mechanisms of effect and exploring its potential with problems and concerns beyond PTSD.  Since 2007 there has been a peer reviewed journal, the Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, dedicated to research and clinical reports on EMDR.  At least as much with any other subject, in order to be up to date with the current status of EMDR, one must follow the journals or proceedings of professional conferences. Finally, it should be mentioned that EMDRIA now officially refers to EMDR as, “EMDR Therapy”


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