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What is EMDR and how does it work?

What is EMDR and how does it work?

EMDR is an integrative psychotherapy practice based upon Adaptive Information Processing. It was originally developed by Francine Shapiro (1995, 2001) to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other trauma responses but has also been successful in treating anxieties, phobias, and complex grief.

The Adaptive Information Processing model that underlies EMDR maintains that new experiences pass through a physiological system which processes all new information so that we can adapt to it. This is how we update the internal maps by which we navigate our world.

New information is constantly added to existing memory networks in the system. These networks of memories are organised around the earliest events and contain associated thoughts, emotions, body sensations and images.

When a person is traumatised or has experienced neglect at crucial stages of their emotional development, the adaptive information processing system can become blocked in its capacity to process new information. The ability to adapt to the world also becomes blocked and people find themselves reacting in ways that are unhelpful. This blocked processing is why people experience flashbacks, nightmares or distressing thoughts that seem to go around and around. The blocked processing also means that physically, traumatised people react as if the trauma were still happening, they do not realise that it is over. This is why traumatised people often suffer from very high anxiety, inability to sleep and hypervigilence. It is a painful cycle of retraumatisation.

Francine Shapiro discovered that by providing alternating left-right bilateral eye movements, information is processed more quickly and thoroughly. Later she found these effects also existed with alternating tones (using headphones) and even touch (where the client holds small ‘tapper’ in each palm).  She called this approach bilateral stimulation. It seems that this approach encourages dual attention which has a healing effect. One part of us remembers the trauma memory and another part pays attention to stimuli in the safe here and now.

Having a dual focus on the past and present at the same time helps us to develop a more integrated adaptation to traumatic memories. EMDR decreases the impact of the images, emotions, sensations and also the unhelpful beliefs that accompany trauma. These are replaced with new associations which are more adaptive and supportive to the person as a whole.

When information is processed fully, we are able to learn, able to find some relief from our distress and ultimately able to understand and adapt to what has happened, and move on with our lives.


Shapiro, F. (2001) EMDR: Basic principles, protocols and procedures. New York: Guilford Press.

Dworkin, M., (2005) EMDR and the relational imperative. New York: Routledge.

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