Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Traumatic experiences, such as an accident or a robbery, leave unconscious and conscious memories in our brain. These, when they occur suddenly and unintentionally, can lead to great psychological suffering. The EMDR method helps to better process traumatic memories. It does this by combining rhythmic eye movements with a therapeutic conversation about the content of the trauma

A trauma and its consequences

Even when physical injuries have healed after an accident or similar event, the psychological consequences can linger. A post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop, leading to great psychological distress. Sufferers often wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, as they suffer from nightmares. Some are also suddenly reminded of the trauma during their normal daily routine and are unintentionally transported back to the situation.

Unconscious memories
Most of the time, victims cannot consciously remember the traumatic experience. Even if they can remember consciously, the memories are often fragmentary. The reason for this is that the brain has been under enormous stress as a result of the trauma and has transferred the experiences unfiltered into the unconscious long-term memory. The memories have burned themselves deeply into the brain without first being consciously processed again. These deeply imprinted memory contents can resurface uncontrollably during sleep or through trigger situations.

Processing of memory content in REM sleep
Trauma thus disrupts the typical functioning of the brain. Actually, we process content that we experience several times during sleep before it is stored for a longer period of time. This processing takes place in what is called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. During this phase, rhythmic eye movements occur behind the closed eyelids. It can be determined from the brain waves that the brain is active during this sleep phase, sorting, connecting and storing memory content. This processing is disturbed by a trauma and the resulting massive stress for body and psyche.

EMDR: processing traumatic memory content

The EMDR method takes the natural mechanism of REM sleep as a model to enable reprocessing of traumatic memory content. Conscious processing allows the memories to be re-stored. This results in the memories losing their terror, even if they appear suddenly. Patients become consciously aware of their memories, which makes it easier to deal with them.

Performing the EMDR method
In the EMDR method, the therapist moves his finger rhythmically from left to right in front of the patient’s face. The patient follows the movement of the finger with their eyes. Meanwhile, the traumatic experience is worked through in conversation. For this purpose, the therapist asks specific questions that are intended to stimulate the re-experiencing of the trauma. Care is taken to proceed gently and gradually so that the patient is not overwhelmed by buried memories.

Mechanisms of the EMDR method
According to experts, through the EMDR method, memories believed to be lost are awakened and can be subsequently processed. Thus, the stressful memories lose their horror. Various mechanisms are discussed that can explain the effectiveness of the EMDR method (according to Shapiro, 2017):

  • The method stimulates natural processing mechanisms that were briefly unavailable during the trauma. It is a triggering of self-healing forces.
  • There is a systematic desensitization to the trauma content, as the eye movements lead to relaxation. Consequently, sufferers react less intensely when they are unintentionally reminded of the trauma.
  • The two simultaneous tasks (eye movement and recollection) reduce the vividness of the memory, as the brain is more engaged by the two tasks.

Efficacy of the EMDR Method The EMDR method sounds amazingly simple. However, it is no more effective than other methods of confronting traumatic memory content (Davidson & Parker, 2001). Nonetheless, rhythmic eye movements and simultaneous recollection can help to process traumatic memories. Thus, EMDR is an adjunct to psychotherapeutic work in PTSD that can support the success of therapy.


(1) Davidson, P. R., & Parker, K. C. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a meta-analysis. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 69(2), 305. (2) Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: basic principles, protocols, and procedures. Guilford Publications.

Categories: Therapy Trauma

Verena Klein
Autor Verena Klein
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