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An Interview with Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. on Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 29th 2007

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Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.Dr. Van Nuys interviews Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., the founder of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy or EMDR. EMDR is a very new form of therapy, dating back only to 1987. It is related to Systematic Desensitization, a technique drawn from behavior therapy, but represents an expansion or evolution of that earlier technique such that EMDR is now a quite distinct therepeutic approach.

According to EMDR, emotional problems as well as disturbing beliefs are caused by the activation of old, disturbing memories, and if you can reprocess those memories so as to make them less troubling and disturbing, you will reduce or eliminate the emotional problems and beliefs they cause. This understanding of how emotional problems are caused is different, theoretically, from the cognitive-behavioral understanding, which is that negative beliefs (which are verbal abstractions based on but not identical to memories) cause emotional problems.

An EMDR treatment is short term, occuring across several sessions. Treatment effects are supposed to be rapid. The therapy begins with the therapist getting the history of the patient's problems. The patient is taught a variety of self-control techniques in a preparation phase that follows, with the idea that he or she can use these self-control techniques to ward off the effects of troubling memories. An assessment phase follows during which troubling memories are identified, as well as the ways in which those memories manifest themselves (for instance, somatically as body aches, or neck pains, or as anxiety feelings, such as heart palpitations). Three treatment phases follow in which troubling memories are paired with rapid eye movements that the therapist helps the patient to perform. Patients don't actually have to speak extensively about their memories during treatment; it it essentially something happening inside the patient's mind and verbalization is irrelevant. Closure and re-evaluation phases follow treatment phases so that any further troubling memories can be identified if necessary. In the wake of treatment, satisfied patients report that the troubling memories no longer are particularly disturbing to them.

Initial EMDR work was with traumatizied patients (e.g., rape victims, combat veterans). However, more recently EMDR approaches have been used successfully with far more mild forms of trauma, including "traumas" that have resulted from emotional embarrassment and shame events. EMDR has even been used with amputee patients who experience "phantom limb" pain. In this latter case, the idea is that pain feelings are actually a memory which can be successfully reprocessed through the use of EMDR techniques. Dr. Shapiro suggests that EMDR is generally useful for treating emotional disturbances that are not due to organic (e.g., brain damage) causes.

Reaction to EMDR amoung psychotherapy researchers has been mixed, with some researchers being excited about it, and others suggesting that it is actually a replication of systematic desensitization and no more or less effective than that technique. This controvercy has not stopped widespread adoption of EMDR among regular working therapists, however. According to Dr. Shapiro, there are now 18 randomized controlled studies of EMDR showing that it is an effective treatment across a variety of clinical problems. Additionally, imaging studies have shown that EMDR treatment is associated with hippocampal growth (an important part of the brain that is thought to shrink in the wake of trauma exposure), and with limbic relaxation (the limbic area of the brain is associated with emotional arousal).

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

About Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.

Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.

Francine Shapiro, PhD is the originator and developer of EMDR, which has been so well researched that it is now recommended as a front line treatment for trauma in the Practice Guidelines of American Psychiatric Association, and those of the Department of Defense and of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Shapiro is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto, California, Executive Director of the EMDR Institute, Watsonville, CA, and founder and President Emeritus of the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs (, a non-profit organization that coordinates disaster response and pro bono trainings worldwide. She is a recipient of the International Sigmund Freud Award, for distinguished contribution to psychotherapy, of the City of Vienna and the Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award presented by the California Psychological Association. Dr. Shapiro was designated as one of the "Cadre of Experts" of the American Psychological Association & Canadian Psychological Association Joint Initiative on Ethnopolitical Warfare, and has served as advisor to a wide variety of trauma treatment and outreach organizations and journals. She has been an invited speaker at psychology conferences worldwide and has written and co-authored more than 60 articles and chapters and books about EMDR, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures (Guilford Press), EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Trauma (Basic Books), EMDR as an Integrative Psychotherapy Approach (American Psychological Association Books) and The Handbook of EMDR and Family Therapy Processes (Wiley).

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

you changes my life - chris - Feb 10th 2011

I have had E.M.D.R performed on me about 11 years ago.  I took 6 sessions, and the minute the sixth session finished my illness was gone.  I'm now going to school to be a drug and alcohol counsell with hopes to get my master on human behavivour, then on my way to get my certificate for E.M.D.R.  I'm working on a paper that wants me to choose any one in the world that I would like to be counselled by.  I chose Dr. Shapiro.  I'm doing my best to try and contact her, but if I cant' do so, I wanted to thank her for creating E.M.D.R and changing my life.


Vancouver B.C.

What about OCD, what experience can you share - Rohan Scully - Aug 28th 2010

How have the results for the treament of OCD with EMDR been recorded and what is the experience you can share.

crash course - robbi - Nov 1st 2009

I am writing a memoir about how EMDR saved my psyche. I would like Dr. Shapiro to write a guest chapter for my book. This treatment is absolutely outstanding and the best treatment for trauma avail. There is a page set up on Facebook for my memoir-in-progress. It is called Crash Course. If anyone knows a publishing house interested, please contact me. My trauma memoir is about my 25 year obsession with plane crashes, beginning when I was ten years old and climaxing w/ terror attacks of 9/11.

And matt, to answer your question, the treatment is stimulation of the brain, via movements of the therapists fingers, to remember negative events and reprocess them into neutral memories. Read shapiros book, and my own, for a better understanding.

EMDR podcast - matt p - Dec 18th 2007

I enjyoyed the podcast, but amid all the talk about the treatment's effectiveness, I didn't really get any sense of WHAT the treatment is.  For example, does the patient stare at an object for a period of time, close your eyes, etc..  So.. I would like to know - how is this treatment administered?



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