Does EMDR Work?

Treating trauma with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy.

By Erik Strand, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

I've heard about a treatment for trauma that involves
eye movement. What is it?

When California psychologist Francine Shapiro invented eye movement
desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) in the late 1980s,
psychiatrists and patients alike were lured by the promise of a
single-session cure for post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions and
phobias. While EMDR's initial splash never swelled to a tsunami,
some 50,000 therapists in the U.S. currently sing its praises.

In EMDR, the therapist waves a finger or baton rapidly before the
client, who follows it with his eyes. These swift eye movements are said
to loosen knots in one's memory and allow negative thoughts and
memories to be favorably reprocessed with minimal guidance from the
therapist. Some have thought the process is akin to REM sleep, where eye
movements accompany the digestion of daytime memories. Others speculated
that the left-right alternation of attention brings brain hemispheres
into greater balance. But no one really knows.

Some psychiatrists dismissed EMDR as outright quackery. Many
practitioners, like Philadelphia psychologist Arlene Goldman, has stood by
the treatment. She said it works best with immediate, discreet forms of
trauma like rape or a car accident. Controversy aside, Shapiro says more
than 2 million people have been helped by the therapy. If you're
suffering, EMDR may be worth a shot: You'll probably know after
just one session whether it will work for you.