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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychotherapy designed to alleviate stress associated with traumatic memories.

Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987 to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the therapy uses eye movements or rhythmic tapping to change the manner in which memories are stored in the brain, allowing the subject to process it in a healthier manner. EMDR therapy helps the brain process and release traumatic memories.

Trauma can manifest in several ways. Early childhood trauma, such as neglect, abuse, or abrupt separation from caregivers, can result in reactive attachment disorder (RAD) or other developmental problems, which may persist into adulthood.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop from traumatic events at any age, such as warfare, sexual assault, child abuse, or other violent acts.

Other conditions that may result from trauma include acute stress disorder (ASD), disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED), adjustment disorder, and dissociative disorders, as well as anxiety, depression, substance use, and personality disorders.

It is not unusual for victims of trauma, particularly that occurring early in life, to suffer the effects of these experiencing even without having a conscious memory of the cause. This is particularly true of children with reactive attachment disorder.

Past disturbing experiences, whether consciously recalled or not, continue to cause distress because the memories have not been adequately processed. These unprocessed memories contain the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and physical sensations that were present at the time of the event. The triggering of these memories is the cause of PTSD and other disorders, including RAD, as there are elements of PTSD in RAD.

Through EMDR, the patient is encouraged to focus briefly on the traumatic memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation, typically through eye movements, reducing the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma. EMDR focuses directly on the memories rather than the emotions. Rather than helping subjects deal with their long-term responses to past trauma, EMDR is intended to change how the memories are stored in the brain, with the goal of reducing or eliminating problematic symptoms.

Standardized EMDR procedures incorporate the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic (left-right) bilateral stimulation, such as lights, tones, or taps. While the client is directed to briefly focus on the memory of the trauma, bilateral stimulation can reduce the negative emotions associated with the memories.

EMDR therapy does not require talking at length about the disturbing issue or completing homework between lessons. Rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, the therapy is designed to resolve the unprocessed traumatic memories, allowing the brain to resume its natural healing process.

The brain's natural healing process involves communication between the amygdala, which is the alarm signal for stressful events, the hippocampus, which assists with learning, including memories having to do with safety and danger, and the prefrontal cortex, which analyzes and controls emotions and behavior. While traumatic experiences are often managed and resolved spontaneously, sometimes help is required.

Stress responses are part of the human fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When these responses are not processed spontaneously, the upsetting images, sounds, thoughts, and emotions can be triggered, emotionally putting the subject back in that moment. EMDR therapy assists the brain in processing these memories so that the healing process can resume. The memories are still there, but the stress response is resolved.

EMDR therapy can help to resolve a range of conditions, including anxiety, panic attacks and phobias, chronic illness and medical issues, depression, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, grief and loss, performance anxiety, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, reactive attachment disorder, sexual assaults, sleep problems, substance abuse and addiction, and violence and abuse.

Generally used as a complementary intervention for mental health issues, it should be administered by licensed mental health clinicians who have been properly trained in the procedure.

EMDR is controversial within the psychological community. The therapy has been characterized by some as a pseudoscience. The argument is that the underlying theory and primary therapeutic mechanisms are non-scientific, and the results are non-specific.

Where conventional medical guidelines recommend EMDR therapy, it is usually conditionally recommended for treating PTSD.



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