The Definition of EMDR

Let’s start with a fairly circumscribed mild point. We need a new definition of EMDR, one that does not begin with “…evidence based …” or “…successful outcomes well documented …”, as occur in EMDRIA’s official definition. Those aren’t phrases you find in a definition, you find them in an evaluation or a press release. In addition, “evidence based” suggests that EMDR was developed from research demonstrating the effectiveness of its various aspects. It wasn’t, but more on that later.

I have a definition in which more is different from EMDRIA’s than just the absence of self praise. I don’t think my proposal is perfect, but so far it is the least bad one I know of. It should also be mentioned that a version of the one below was submitted to EMDRIA during the latest development of the EMDR definition and it was rejected. But, that doesn’t mean the discussion should be over, or that someone could not use mine if they needed one that focused on essential features.

And, here it is: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a method of psychotherapy in which aspects of a target associative network (usually a troubling memory) including visual images, thoughts, feeling, emotions, are identified, as are a preferred thought about the self when target memory is active. The believability of the preferred thought is rated, as is the level of distress felt as the troubling memory is activated before initiated eye movement.

With the painful aspects of the problem memory again brought to awareness, the client is asked to free associate while moving her or his eyes following the therapist lead, in a repeated pattern for a period of time, determined by client response, but usually about 30 seconds. After the set of eye movement, the client is asked to report on the current content of consciousness, and then eye movement is reinitiated. This pattern is repeated until distress associated with the target network is resolved, and, hopefully, adaptive associations are connected to the targeted event. In its most complete form all aspects of the target memory(ies) are addressed, including related past events and possible future situations which may elicit related psychopathological responses.

Therapist comments between sets of eye movement are limited to brief instructions, unless the client is not progressing by either becoming aware of new material or not having decreased distress. In these cases a variety of interventions, many typical of other methods of psychotherapy may be made before eye movements are resumed.

There are many variations to specific aspects of the above activities, including on what the client is supposed to try to keep in mind as em begins. These variations are determined by client response, experience and research.

As in standard psychotherapy practice negotiation of treatment contract, client evaluation, history taking, building of rapport, explanation of method, and development of stress management strategies are part of treatment.

And now a short dictionary/elevator definition:

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) – a method of psychotherapy which usually involves recalling a troubling experience and engaging in therapist led repetitive back and forth eye movements or other sensory/motor activity. The rest is commentary.

I was just kidding about the commentary part. This subtle reference to Rabbi Hillel’s effort to explain his religion while standing on one leg obviously doesn’t belong in a definition. However, it should also note that Rabbi Hillel is reputed to have also suggested that the commentary should be studied.

Response to a potential objection:

I can foresee objection to the phrase: “including on what the client is supposed to try to keep in mind as eye movement begins”. The allowance of the loosening of the protocol comes from clinical practice. Let’s say before the first set of eye movement, when the therapist asks the client to put in mind a picture of the worst part of the target memory, the client has an immediate strong emotional reaction, and the therapist then begins the eye movement. Since the client has already been prepared for eye movement at this point most experienced therapists I have asked would just begin it. Would this not be EMDR because most of the Assessment phase was skipped over?

There will never be a fully satisfactory definition of EMDR, and this is a problem with almost all terms in the mental health field including such basic terms as “mental health” and “psychotherapy”. So we have to pick compromises that are most useful and least problematic.