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EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro when she went on a walk to think through some disturbing events in her life. She noticed that she no longer felt distressed and then remembered her eyes had naturally been moving back and forth during the walk.


Over the years, Dr. Shapiro developed the formal method of EMDR including elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy, psychoanalytic theory, and body-centered therapy, as well as the alternate stimulation of the right and left hemispheres through of the use of eye movement, tapping or auditory tones. Today EMDR is used worldwide to treat the effects of trauma in both adults as well as children.


We all have an innate ability to adaptively process events in our lives, extract wisdom from what has happened, and move on. However, when we experience an event that is highly distressing or life threatening this innate ability shuts down as our brain directs our body to protect itself.

While this protective instinct is a very good thing, it presents a problem. As rational thought stops, so does our ability to adaptively process and integrate our experience. As a result, energy and emotion can get locked in our nervous system. Small, seemingly random occurrences remind us of the trauma and set off an alarm system in our brain and body. We experience intrusive thoughts, emotions and physical sensations as if the traumatic event is still occurring.


EMDR’s uniquely structured application of bilateral stimulation and experiential recall jump starts the brain's natural adaptive processing system. The memory may still be regarded as unpleasant, but it is no longer activating or triggering. 


EMDR has been found to be effective in treating a wide range of issues including:

  • panic attacks and phobias

  • anxiety

  • complicated grief

  • medical procedures, surgeries and hospitalizations

  • physical or sexual abuse

  • accidents

  • vicarious trauma (witnessing someone else's traumatic experience)

EMDR for Children

Though we tend to think of trauma as a life threatening event, less perilous experiences can feel traumatic when they compromise our perception of safety. For children, a playground accident, a choking episode, a prolonged illness, a medical procedure, a hospital stay, the loss of a pet or loved one can be experienced as traumatic.


More important than the event itself is the degree to which children perceive themselves as powerful or powerless. If their instinct to take some purposeful and protective action is thwarted, neurochemicals (e.g., adrenaline), sensory data (e.g., sounds, sights, smells) and corresponding emotions (e.g., fear or panic) can get stored in the body. 

Fortunately, children inherently posses a healthy ego-centrism that gives them the energy they need to meet on-going challenges throughout childhood. If children get stuck in a defensive, reactive or shut down mode, a process such as EMDR can set them free.


As an EMDR clinician, I engage the child in a playful form of bi-lateral stimulation such as tapping games, drumming, rocking, or eye movement as the child recalls the traumatic event through storytelling, drawing or playing.


The skillful blending of bi-lateral input and experiential recall enables children to adaptively process the event and discharge the associated sensory data and emotions. Children are then able to reconnect to self-affirming beliefs in their competence, power, safety and well being.

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