Child and Family Counseling Center, San Diego, offices in Del Mar and Encinitas

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye-movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is a comprehensive, therapeutic approach that helps people release disturbing thoughts and emotions that originate in traumatic experiences.  Experiences can be traumatic in the commonly accepted sense such as abuse, disasters and violence.  However, children may also perceive and respond to more ordinary events as very threatening.  For example, a playground accident, the loss of a loved one (including a pet), school problems, choking on a piece of popcorn, or medical procedures, can be a part of growing up.  They can also become critical incidents that cause a child to view themselves as helpless, powerless, to become fearful, and to develop serious behavioral problems.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR has shown that the brain takes experiences and processes them, much like the digestive system processes food.  That is, if an experience is properly “digested,” it is integrated into the system and supports healthy growth.  If a traumatic experience is not integrated because of how it is stored in the brain, a person can suffer, both physically and psychologically.  (In fact, physical symptoms with no obvious medical explanation may stem from earlier events that have been stored, with accompanying disturbing sensations and emotions.)  When a person is very upset, their traumatic experiences may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells and feelings haven’t changed.

EMDR seems to have a direct effect on the way the brain functions.  It appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM sleep (rapid eye movements).  It works to metabolize painful memories, much like REM sleep works as the “night janitor” to clean up (or metabolize) disturbing memories.  Although EMDR was originally developed based upon the observation that rapid eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thought under certain conditions, other repetitive and alternating tapping or auditory tone seem to be as effective as eye movement.  In a typical EMDR session with an adult, the therapist moves his/her hand back and forth, from left to right, while the adult’s eyes follow this motion.  With children, however, this procedure is modified to include puppets, drawing, and other “game-like” methods.  EMDR helps a person experience distressing material in a new and less distressing way.

What kinds of problems are treated with EMDR?

While research shows that EMDR is effective with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), therapists have reported success in the treatment of nightmares, depression, anxiety, grief, abuse, pain associated with medical procedures and conditions, and physical and psychological injuries.

How long does EMDR take?

One or more sessions may be required for the therapist  to understand the nature of the problem and to decide if EMDR is appropriate.  If so, a single, 90-minute EMDR session may be sufficient in some cases. 
However, a typical course of treatment is 3 to 10 sessions, performed weekly or every other week.  EMDR may be used within a standard “talking” therapy, as an adjunctive therapy with a separate therapist, or as a treatment all by itself.

For more information, click on the following links:

More information:
EMDR International Association (EMDRIA)
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