In recent years, the use of EMDR therapy has become popular in cases of post-traumatic stress and other disorders, mainly related to anxiety. It basically consists of moving the eyes to follow the therapist’s fingers while remembering a disturbing event; according to its author, Francine Shapiro, this favors emotional processing.

In this article we will talk about the mechanisms of action, the main applications and the effectiveness of desensitization and reprocessing therapy by eye movements . We will especially focus on a comparison with prolonged live exposure, the classical treatment of choice for treating the symptoms of many anxiety disorders.

What is EMDR therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is better known. However, some Spanish-speaking authors refer to this intervention as “DRMO therapy” , adapting the abbreviation to Spanish.

This is a relatively recent psychological treatment. It was developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s around the hypothesis that certain types of eye movements are helpful in reducing the emotional intensity of negative thoughts, such as traumatic memories.

The procedure that psychotherapists must follow when using EMDR consists of moving the fingers in front of the client’s face , who in turn has to move his/her eyes to focus on the clinician’s fingers at all times. Meanwhile, the clinician will make the person he/she is treating focus on specific mental contents in order to process them.

The EMDR programme is structured in eight phases. Each phase focuses on a different moment in time: the present, the past or the future. The sessions last a maximum of 1 hour and a half and begin with the induction of negative thoughts, but progressively these are replaced by others with a more pleasant emotional tone.

Applications of this intervention

EMDR therapy is mainly applied in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder , which appears as a consequence of traumatic experiences that endanger one’s own life or that of others. Some of the most relevant risk factors are rape and other physical abuse, war, traffic accidents or threats with weapons.

However, this intervention program has also been used in people with other anxiety disorders, such as specific phobias and distress crises, with addictions of different types and with eating disorders.

Several meta-analyses support the use of EMDR for objectives similar to those of exposure therapy, such as in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the peculiarity of this method, the lack of clarity of its mechanisms and certain methodological problems of the research on this subject make many professionals question it.

What is its mechanism of action?

According to Shapiro and her followers, EMDR therapy is effective because the rhythmic eye movements make memories with a negative emotional charge less disturbing when both factors operate simultaneously. Therefore, it is an unusual psychological therapy as it is not based on conversation.

Other authors consider that EMDR is nothing more than a type of exposure therapy in the imagination. The effectiveness of this type of intervention is somewhat less than that of live exposure, although it is also more tolerable for clients and can be applied to problems where live exposure is not feasible (e.g., airplane phobia).

In general, we can say that whatever the mechanism of action of EMDR, it seems to be an effective treatment. What is not so clear at the moment is whether it is possible to distinguish it from other procedures based on prolonged exposure to stimuli that generate anxiety or other types of discomfort.

Are you looking for professional assistance through EMDR therapy?

If you live in the Madrid area and are interested in EMDR therapy, one of the recommended options is the therapy center El Prado Psicólogos , which has 3 locations in the capital of Spain: Calle de Cervantes nº 9, Calle de Núñez de Balboa nº 42 and Calle de Espalter nº 13. Its team of professionals, made up of psychologists and psychiatrists, has a long history of attending to patients, and offers a free first session. Their contact details are available here.

Bibliographic references:

  • Schnyder, Ulrich; Cloitre, Marylène (2015-02-14). Evidence Based Treatments for Trauma-Related Psychological Disorders: A Practical Guide for Clinicians. Springer.
  • Shapiro, F (1989). “Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2 (2): 199–223.