What is EMDR Therapy and is it Biblical?

Charles A. Jennings, M.C., LPC


In the words of the psychologist who discovered and developed EMDR, Francine Shapiro, it is probably the most poorly labeled therapeutic method to date. The acronym stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Because that is a mouthful, we simply refer to it as EMDR. It is a therapy that claims to help victims of trauma overcome the emotions and inaccurate belief pairings that interferes with the client's life in ways that are negative or destructive. This method of therapy has a demonstrated ability to accomplish in less than half the time the results obtained by conventional therapies for its targeted issues. What used to take months or years of therapy to accomplish has in some instances been realized with EMDR in just a few hours.

The method has been deemed by the American Psychological Association (APA) as "possibly efficacious" for the treatment of civilian single event post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). People whose symptoms fall into that diagnosis are those who, for example, experienced war, rape, kidnapping, or events such as the federal building bombing in Oklahoma or a tornado. Most of the therapy which prompted this comment from the APA was done with Viet Nam veterans who had exhausted the Veteran's Administration's best attempts to help them with standard methods.

Who can benefit from EMDR?

EMDR has been reported to be effective with men, women, and children of just about any age. The "trauma" can be of the typical headlines disaster type, or so innocuous sounding that hardly anybody would give it a second thought. One specific example of a headline worthy trauma is of a locomotive engineer who was unable to stop his train in time to avoid hitting a nine-month pregnant woman who had thrown herself on the tracks in a suicide attempt. Just before she threw herself in front of him, she looked him squarely in the eyes, a vision that haunted him after the event. The memory of his train cutting her in half continued to plague him even when he did nothing of his own to bring up that memory. Despite his accurate belief that there was nothing he could have done to have prevented her death, his body's physical reaction to the triggered memory was that of guilt -- severe guilt. In order to retain both his job and his sanity, something needed to be done to set him free of the unfounded and inappropriate feelings of guilt that he was experiencing. A few sessions with a trained EMDR therapist did the job. He is now able to talk lucidly about the experience without the paralyzing emotional effect that used to come with the memory.

With more experience in the field, EMDR practitioners are finding that it is also useful for less dramatic traumas. Things that might not bother you or me can haunt someone else for years and visa versa. We are finding that many marital feuds are based on mini-traumas experienced earlier in life. We are finding that children can be traumatized by such things as partially waking up while still in surgery. A woman with a history of childhood abuse and who loves her husband deeply has unexplainable negative reactions to his presence in specific settings, or to certain ways he touches her. Both are at a loss to explain her reactions, and because she is unable to stop reacting that way even with her best efforts, the husband concludes that deep down she must reject him or his masculinity. The result is an injured marriage -- a situation resulting from seeds sown years before and out of her immediate memory. A man finds his blood pressure jumps at the very thought of going to a doctor and his fear is reinforced when the nurse measures his temporarily high blood pressure. A child bullied or intimidated in his early school years might have great difficulty accepting job promotions to leadership or responsibility as an adult. A girl whose mother had numerous men (fathers) in her home might have great difficulty communicating to her husband her concerns on such matters as fiscal spending without screaming or crying uncontrollably. In short, it might be possible to help many who know what they are doing "wrong" or know how they wish they could react in specific situations, but it is as though they are imprisoned in a glass box that nobody else can see.

Many clients have told me that they hate the way they are but that their best intentions seem to be out of reach as though an invisible rope was holding them back. That invisible rope might just be a personal trauma that has never been completely resolved which creates such strong emotions of fear, and/or subconscious thoughts of self doubt, that the client is cast into a state of semi paralysis which frustrates any attempt of achieving his or her goals. The person might think it is due to a lack of faith in God that keeps them locked in this cycle and thus add to their pain by labelling themselves as spiritual failures. They might determine that it is someone else, or the "system," that is causing their downfall and become blaming and bitter.

Numerous other examples could be given, but the theme would be the same. Someone has been through a personally traumatic experience, surviving a tornado, a ship wreck, an auto accident, a parent burying their child, or being trapped, and the memory continues to evoke terrifying, or at least very disturbing, emotional reactions long afterward as though they were having a nightmare. The association of the event and its after effects are usually accompanied by some false belief about the person such as: "I should have stopped it," or "I am in some way defective," or "I could have done better." As time passes, they do not get over it, or they have gotten over it only to have it reemerge years later seemingly out of nowhere.

What is the procedure?

Here is where things can get a bit confusing. The core of the procedure involves having the client match up specific images or remembered sensations with thoughts pre-selected by the therapist and client while the therapist directs the client's eye movements in predetermined patterns. After each "set" of eye movements, the client is instructed to focus briefly on something else, take a deep breath, then give a report of what might have transpired during the eye movements. The therapist considers the report in the light of his or her training and then instructs the client on a modified image/thought match and once again performs a set of eye movements. This cycle is repeated until the therapist determines that either the hoped for result has been achieved or an impasse is reached. In the latter event, the therapist is trained in several techniques that might overcome the impasse. It is important to note that eye movements are not the only option available. Certain tactile and auditory stimuli have also been demonstrated to be effective, thus increasing the confusion as to just what constitutes EMDR.

How does it work?

Well...we do not know. Several theories by those promoting EMDR have been advanced to explain why and how such a seemingly simple method can have such dramatic and rapid results. Some think that negative life experiences or traumas are those which upset the biochemical balance of the brain’s physical information processing system. This imbalance prevents the information processing from proceeding to a state of adaptive resolution with the result that the perceptions, emotions, beliefs, and meanings derived from the experience are, in effect, "locked" in the nervous system. EMDR might act as a form of accelerated information processing – might unblock the brain’s information processing system through a number of ways. To date, there is insufficient medical research to validate this theory.

EMDR might tap into the same mechanisms used in learning and memory now identified with REM sleep. Another possibility is that blocked processing is manifested as phase discrepancies between equivalent areas in the brain’s hemispheres and that the EMDR rhythmic intervention results in improved hemispheric communication with the result that the blocked material is finally processed. Or, EMDR might initiate an orienting reflex change in neuropsychological functioning leading directly to desensitization.  Again, there is scant scientific research validating any of these theories.

It would not surprise me if the answer turns out to be not a complicated neuropsychological process, but rather a simple cognitive one that is enhanced by an atmosphere of suspended pressures to perform.  Even in a typical supportive and non-judgmental counseling setting, clients are under pressure to deliberately engage in the process.  With EMDR, that pressure is reduced substantially because my client is only asked to report what is happening, not cause, analyze, or judge it.  This allows them to enter into a less structured frame of mind where it is okay to take time to experience some old memories and let some long overdue adjustments to the meanings associated with them be considered.  This seems to be the case with many of my EMDR clients who are very duty driven individuals living quite self-demanding lifestyles.

Despite our lack of answers, you can be assured that God knew what He was doing when he designed the mind to work the way it does, and the more we discover about His design the more we will be able to work in harmony with it and reap the benefits.

Are there risks?

Yes.  One risk to those receiving help from an appropriately trained therapist is that the specific targeted memory might be successfully processed only to find others waiting in the wings to come on stage and present themselves. This can in and of itself be discomforting to the client as he or she feels a flood of old business coming to mind. Also, the process begun by EMDR in the session might continue after the client leaves the therapeutic session. This can sometimes create discomfort days later much to the bewilderment of the client. It is not uncommon for the brain to dredge up, as it were, other events linked to the treated trauma, that the brain has linked together.

Another risk is that we might be over promoting EMDR and thus setting the profession of counseling up for more public criticism.  More research is needed to demonstrate just how effective EMDR is, for whom, and how it works.  To date, I am aware that most, if not all, of the supporting evidence comes from practitioners in the field rather than rigorous scientific testing.  I can empathize with those practitioners who might be frustrated with older therapeutic techniques and vigorously support something new and radically different.  We all want to help our clients, and we all have had our disappointments.  The fact that EMDR might well be the fastest growing therapy in recent history should not be taken as evidence that it is all it is claimed to be.  For more information, visit the EMDR Institute web site www.emdr.com and read some of the opposing and exposing articles published in various journals that can be found by searching the web using "EMDR" as the search term.

Is it biblical?

I am not sure what the inquirer has in mind in terms of defining "biblical," so I will answer this the way I do in my office when it is possible to dialogue with the client to determine what is the issue.  The most common concerns I find are that of the client exposing him- or herself to any kind of treatment that might redirect his or her heart away from Christ and His teachings to something sinful or evil, or the client is concerned that the treatment process will diminish their self control in some way and they will behave sinfully or commit some evil.

The process of EMDR involves the client fully and consciously.  Prior to beginning the process, the client contributes the needed information that will be used during the process --  the specific subject to be explored and the new cognition that is to be verbally provided at the appropriate time.  At all times prior to beginning the process, the client is in total control of what is to take place.  If there is anything unbiblical about that information, or the subject of exploration, it was brought to the EMDR session by the client and is not the result of EMDR or the practitioner.  During the process, the client is fully awake, not in a state resembling hypnosis in any way, and fully in control of his- or herself.  In fact, were the client not fully conscious and in control, EMDR could not work.  Dialogue between client and practitioner is ongoing during the process, and the practitioner depends on the client to be in control in order to guide him or her with real world feedback in order to accomplish a successful outcome.  If the client behaves or speaks in an unbiblical manner during this time, then that behavior or speech is a characteristic of that client apart from EMDR.