EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. As the therapy has developed, its popularity has increased. The U.S. Departments of Veteran Affairs and Defense recommend EMDR for cases of PTSD, and the American Psychiatric Association also calls it effective. Some Christian therapists are also using EMDR.
The impetus for Shapiro’s method came as she was walking through a park and noticed that her own eye movements seemed to decrease the negative emotions surrounding her distressing memories. She then began to experiment with eye movements in others and found that it had a similar effect. EMDR has been further developed, tested, and studied since. The therapy now has a three-pronged approach with eight different phases. The idea is that past traumatic events cause troubles in the present because they have not been properly processed. The unprocessed memories are believed to carry with them the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that were present at the time of the trauma. EMDR targets memories and seeks to change the way they are stored in the brain.
EMDR therapy involves specific procedures, although the course of treatment may vary somewhat based on the client’s background and needs. In general, it begins with history taking and identifying treatment targets and goals. The therapist then has the client practice the eye movements or another bilateral stimulation method (such as hand-tapping). The therapist also helps the client establish a method to manage emotional distress during and after the session. Next, the client accesses the traumatic memory and identifies an image related to the memory, a negative belief surrounding the memory, and associated emotions and body sensations. The client also identifies a positive belief. The client then focuses on the memory while performing eye movements, led by the therapist. The client is encouraged to notice what happens during this phase, and the therapist helps guide the focus and alters the treatment accordingly. Once the client has no distress associated with the memory, he or she is instructed to think of the chosen positive belief. The client then observes his or her physical response to thinking about the memory and the positive belief. If there is still emotional disturbance, more bilateral stimulation is applied. If the target memory is not processed fully during one session, the therapist and client discuss ways to maintain the client’s stability until the next session.
EMDR reportedly provides a rapid decrease of distressing symptoms as it combines the body and mind to help clients work through trauma. EMDR has been primarily used for PTSD but is also being tried for anxiety disorders and addictions.
Depending on the practitioner, EMDR may or may not be acceptable for Christians. The EMDR Institute, Inc.’s, website claims that the human mind naturally moves toward mental health and that “unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR therapy result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes.” This statement conflicts with the biblical truth that humans are born with a sinful nature and that our hearts are naturally deceptive (Jeremiah 17:9). The power to heal is not within us but in Jesus Christ alone.
Another potential problem with EMDR is the fact that a client chooses a positive cognition with which to replace the negative cognition associated with the traumatic memory. If this positive cognition is based on biblical truth, then there will be no issue. But if it is based in worldly wisdom, then it could result in one problem simply being exchanged for another (see James 3:13–17). Seeking any type of therapy, whether physical therapy, EMDR, etc., to alleviate symptoms can be beneficial, but that is only the beginning of true healing.
No one really knows how or why EMDR works. It could be the result of the way God has created our bodies and minds to interact, but God has not detailed that interaction for us. There is no biblical indication that we need to perform specific procedures in order to properly process memories. Likewise, there is no biblical instruction against such procedures. Therefore, there is no blanket response on whether or not a Christian can use EMDR. We need to submit all of our experiences to God and to His truth. God blesses the one “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:2–3).
There is no biblical prohibition against using physical tools to help us with our emotional difficulties. Just as we might use medications to help with physical ailments, it could be that bilateral stimulation and dual attention are useful tools in emotional processing.
The theory behind EMDR has holes and potential pitfalls. Yet it does seem effective, and there are Christian counselors who use EMDR as a tool. As there is nothing inherently wrong with moving one’s eyes, recalling memories, or evaluating how one has processed a traumatic event, it would seem there is nothing inherently wrong within the EMDR treatment procedure itself. As with most forms of therapy, the usefulness and truthfulness depend in large part on the counselor and the client. If a therapist and a client are committed to biblical truth and seeking healing ultimately from God, EMDR could be an acceptable means toward that end.
When seeking any form of therapy, it is best to fully vet a potential counselor. Therapists are required to obtain informed consent from their clients and must share with their clients the theories undergirding their techniques and the tools and techniques involved in therapy. It is always wise to pray about any potential therapy before committing to it—and along the way. Compare what a counselor says against biblical truth. Examine the fruitfulness of any therapy in your own life. Is it helping you to draw closer to God, to experience His freedom, to live increasingly in His truth? Or is it drawing you away from God, making you feel self-sufficient, encouraging you into sinful behaviors and attitudes? If at any point you become uneasy with a therapy or technique, you should stop immediately.