Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was invented and then heavily marketted by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1987.  It is taught by the EMDR Institute which Shapiro runs.  There is an association of enthusiast practitioners called EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) which promotes the method.

What is EMDR?

Patients (clients) are told to keep stressful memories which cause them anxiety in their thoughts. Then the EMDR therapist moves their a hand back and forth, which the patient watches.  It is a lot like the hypnotist in so many old movies asking a subject to watch a pocket watch swinging back and forth. The EMDR therapists have updated with other “lateralized” movements, having patients track back and forth flashing lights, tapping with one hand and then another, and even squeezing foam balls, tapping on telegraph keys, and hand dynamometers.

What is their theory?

They have quite a number of explanations, none of which are proven with any level of scientific certainty.  This includes odd theories of “balancing” brain hemispheres, and other neurological ideas related to how the eyes put information into the brain.  None of these have any data and are speculations or fantasies of the therapists.

What is the usual therapy for PTSD and anxiety?

In brief, teaching the patient to control their physical and psychological arousal and symptoms while confronting the things that make then anxious.  This is called “exposure therapy” and is part of all effective therapies for PTSD and anxiety  (“Cognitive Behaviour Therapy” (CBT) is the general category of therapies).  CBT treatments work by exposing patients repeatedly to things which cause them anxiety,  either within imagination (“imaginal exposure”) or in real life (“in vivo exposure”). When exposure to either type is sufficiently prolonged, the patient has learned to control their responses when the things which cause anxiety are present, anxiety lessens.  It is hard work, and there is no magic to it: the EMDR method promised magic.  But there is no magic.

Conclusions

  1. There is no data whatsoever that EMDR is more effective than any other therapies.
  2. It may be based on a false theories about the brain which therapists believe and share with patients
  3. EMDR may provide some distracting ways of dealing with anxiety, based on a false theory, but nevertheless distracting.
  4. If EMDR works for a patient, what works is not a new thing.
  5. If you have PTSD or other psychological problems and are offered EMDR, you may wish to be sceptical.

Some References

  1. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): a meta-analysis (2001). EMDR appears to be no more effective than other exposure techniques, and no evidence suggests that the eye movements integral to the treatment are necessary.
  2. Comparing the efficacy of EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a meta-analytic study (2006). Systematic review of the literature dating from 1989 to 2005. What remains unclear is the contribution of the eye movement component in EMDR to treatment outcome.

(I didn’t include references that you must pay to read the articles.)

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