EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) started out as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder, in the early 1990’s. As the name suggests, a unique feature of this treatment is the use of exposure combined with eye movements to transform painful memories and feelings. Unlike “talk-therapies” which rely on expression and insight, EMDR seems to stimulate decreased emotional distress and new associations unconsciously. For example, a traumatized motor vehicle accident victim would be asked to recall certain cognitive and emotional elements of the memory of the accident, and then to simultaneously focus on the bilateral eye stimulation (usually therapist hand movements). The therapist repeats this procedure, tracking changes each time, until the memory is processed. Following this treatment procedure, instead of feeling upset and thinking “I’m gonna die’ when recalling the accident, the person might report feeling calmer and thinking, ‘I almost died – but I survived.’ EMDR cannot change the facts of what happened, but it does seem to change the person’s perspective. Indeed, the whole method is predicated on the notion that human beings have an innate information processing capacity (Adaptive Information Processing system) which is geared for health and healing.
EMDR’s ability to reduce physical and emotional distress associated with PTSD led to the method’s use with chronic pain. As of early 2013 there are about a dozen published research papers which indicate that EMDR can help with pain. The unique bilateral stimulation component of EMDR seems to be the key to the methods efficacy. Bilateral stimulation (paired with focused attention) has been found to stimulate a rare trio of physical, mental and emotional changes including relaxation, feelings of drowsiness, decreased ability to worry and feelings of detachment from the problem. As you can imagine, these changes really alter the way a problem is experienced in the body, which is the basis for our feelings and perceptions. So far the research indicates that EMDR can facilitate reduced pain, reduced emotional distress and improved coping.