How EMDR Therapy Works

EMDR and AIP: The Mind's Natural Healing Process

EMDR Therapy is based on the theory of Adaptive Information Processing (AIP).
AIP says that our minds naturally have a system that heals itself of psychological distress, much like how our bodies naturally heal physical problems (like a paper cut).

This system helps us integrate information and heal from disturbing events. It is meant to make connections that are helpful to us and our survival, then let go of the rest. Sometimes though, this system gets "blocked" so that instead of learning about an event and processing it, the memory is stored in a disturbing way, and with negative associations (like "it was all my fault" or "I am unlovable" or "I have no control over bad things happening"). Our system gets overwhelmed and the resolution doesn't take place. These memories and beliefs get stuck and need to be unblocked. When it is reprocessed, the information shifts and becomes more positive, which usually makes self-worth increase.

When you overreact to a situation in the present, and feel a lot of negative emotions flood in, it usually means there is an association linked to unprocessed memories. These unconscious connections happen automatically and we are often unaware of them.

Basically, the idea of EMDR is to integrate the trauma in a more adaptive way. The reason it does this so well is that EMDR focuses not on your reaction (symptoms) to the issue but to the actual memory of the disturbing event itself, which leads to changed reaction and interpretation.

EMDR - The Process

The clinician will first help you figure our what memory or set of memories that bothers you and affects how you see yourself and others. This will be what you target with EMDR. These are usually some negative and upsetting thoughts and feelings that affect your life. Using a special procedure to help you visualize and connect to these memories, the therapist will also give you Bilateral Stimulation while you think.

Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) is simply stimulation that you see, hear, and/or feel that goes back and forth, like windshield wipers, or a pendulum. It is not uncomfortable and you maintain full awareness of where you are and what you are doing (it is not like hynosis). It can be watching a light or fingers go back and forth, or wearing headphones that beep from one side to the next.

BLS appears to alter your state of mind to enable information processing, which means it appears to help your brain better access and connect to the upsetting information (like how Adaptive Information Processing is supposed to work). Then it facilitates more positive integration so you begin to "detoxify" the material. Afterward, people usually feel more relief and more positive about themselves.

EMDR is very compatible with traditional therapy and it is suggested to incorporate both into your treatment. Usually 3-5 treatment sessions are recommended.

Because EMDR has a generalizing effect, even specific material not accessed is affected and helped because our memory networks work a lot by association. So other problems that "remind" you of the processed information generally improve too.

Client readiness is extremely important and assessment is required.

Taken from Shapiro, F. EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing;
Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures (2001). Guildford Press.
Shapiro, F. Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy (2012). Rodale Press.