The History and Science of EMDR

Adapted from the EMDRIA website

In 1987, a psychologist named Dr. Francine Shapiro made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts, under certain conditions.  She studied this effect scientifically and, in 1989, she reported success using EMDR to treat people with traumatic experiences in the Journal of Traumatic Experiences.

Since then, EMDR has developed and evolved through the contributions of therapists and researchers all over the world.  Approximately 20 controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR.  These studies have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases/eliminates the symptoms of post traumatic stress for the majority of clients.  Clients often report improvement in other associated symptoms such as anxiety.  The current treatment guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies designate EMDR as an effective treatment for post traumatic stress.  EMDR was also found effective by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, the United Kingdom Department of Health, the Israeli National Council for Mental Health, and many other international health and governmental agencies.  Research has also shown that EMDR can be an efficient and rapid treatment.

EMDR is a phased, scientifically validated, and integrative psychotherapy approach based on the theory that much of psychopathology is due to traumatic experience or disturbing life events. These result in the impairment of the client’s innate ability to process and to integrate the experience or experiences within the central nervous system.  The core of EMDR treatment involves activating components of the traumatic memory or disturbing life event and pairing those components with alternating bilateral or dual attention stimulation.  This process appears to facilitate the resumption of normal information processing and integration.  This treatment approach can result in the alleviation of presenting symptoms, diminution of distress from the memory, improved view of the self, relief from bodily disturbance, and resolution of present and future anticipated triggers.

Dr. Dan Siegel states that

... from a neural point of view, such an impairment in mental processes may be seen as due to a blockage in neural integration, the manner in which the brain brings its circuitry into a functional whole1.

EMDR’s goal is to reestablish this neural integration in order to successfully integrate experiences.  This information processing approach is woven into a larger treatment plan to resolve specific elements of trauma that have been lingering and impeding one from living a successful life.  Brain scans that have been done of traumatized people’s brains before and after EMDR processing show that it is effective.

If you would like to read more about how EMDR works or what other people have said about their experiences, go to

1Handbook for EMDR Clients, Marilyn Luber, 2003, pg 5