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  • Robert Farago

EMDR is Hypnosis

So why don't they call it that?

When I was in rehab, I went to a therapist for EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Desensitizing my eye movement? I wasn’t aware that my eye movement was over-sensitive. I joke. But the technique isn’t a joke. Well, it kinda is.

Let’s start with how it’s done, via Dr. Shapiro’s

After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision.  As this happens, for reasons believed by a Harvard researcher to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, internal associations arise and the clients begin to process the memory and disturbing feelings.

As Ellen Foley sang in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, stop right there! First, notice the word “first.” The org promoting EMDR assumes that the patient has multiple traumatic traumatic memories.

Do they? They might. They might not. But assuming they do assumes that the patient needs multiple treatments. A convenient presupposition. For the therapist, that is.

Then there’s the command to “track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision.” Some therapists use a bar with lights going back and forth across the patient’s field of vision.

Does this remind you of anything? How about a hypnotist’s swinging watch? Same concept, at least initially: tire out the subject’s eyes to get them to close them to initiate the hypnosis.

By the same token, a hypnotist puts a subject into trance, indicated by the “biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.”

Translation: a subject’s brain in a hypnotic state goes into REM, as witnessed by their eyes moving back and forth under their eyelids. Ask any stage hypnotist: standard operating procedure.

I’ve skipped over EMDR’s first two phases, which involve identifying the traumatic event causing the patient’s symptoms (a.k.a., a fight or flight response triggered by an external stimulus) and hitting them with some cognitive therapy advice (i.e., ways to think yourself out of inappropriate stress reactions).


In phases three to six, a target is identified and processed using EMDR therapy procedures.  These involve the client identifying three things: 1.  The vivid visual image related to the memory 2.  A negative belief about self 3.  Related emotions and body sensations. In addition, the client identifies a positive belief. The therapist helps the client rate the positive belief as well as the intensity of the negative emotions.  After this, the client is instructed to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations while simultaneously engaging in EMDR processing using sets of bilateral stimulation.  These sets may include eye movements, taps, or tones.  The type and length of these sets is different for each client. At this point, the EMDR client is instructed to just notice whatever spontaneously happens.

This description is fairly vague. You might say it has something to do with the fact that EMDR Institute, Inc. is a for-profit org selling training to therapists, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

In practice – which is hardly set in stone – the EMDR therapist asks the patient to imagine a safe space. Then imagine the traumatic event, and rate their distress from one to ten.

The “negative belief about self” they’re told to express is a statement of why the event fucked them up. For example, a rape victim might say “I’m powerless.” An arachnophobe might say “I can’t defend myself” or “I’m out of control.”

Re-visiting a traumatic event and admitting your weakness is what I call trauma porn. It is extremely distressing.

After each set of stimulation, the clinician instructs the client to let his/her mind go blank and to notice whatever thought, feeling, image, memory, or sensation comes to mind. Depending upon the client’s report, the clinician will choose the next focus of attention. 
These repeated sets with directed focused attention occur numerous times throughout the session.  If the client becomes distressed or has difficulty in progressing, the therapist follows established procedures to help the client get back on track.
When the client reports no distress related to the targeted memory, (s)he is asked to think of the preferred positive belief that was identified at the beginning of the session. 

And there you have it. Aside from…

Phase 7:  In phase seven, closure, the therapist asks the client to keep a log during the week. The log should document any related material that may arise.  It serves to remind the client of the self-calming activities that were mastered in phase two.
Phase 8: The next session begins with phase eight.  Phase eight consists of examining the progress made thus far. The EMDR treatment processes all related historical events, current incidents that elicit distress, and future events that will require different responses.

The info page doesn’t say anything about the number of sessions required. Clearly, the technique is “sold” as an ongoing process. A solid business, really.

We can thank Dr. Francine Shapiro for launching the therapy in 1987, after the Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) acolyte experienced rapid eye movement during a contemplative walk in the woods (or not). EMDR arrived in a rapidly declining market for “talk therapy.” (Something about its stunning lack of results.)

There’s LOTS of research explaining how EMDR works, backing up its efficacy. None of which I dispute. Why would I? After 13 years as a professional hypnotist, I recognize EMDR as hypnosis, combined with NLP and cognitive therapy.

No question: EMDR works. It’s helped, in many cases permanently cured, hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from PTSD, phobias, lack of confidence, etc. My problem: marketing and certain aspects of the technique.

If a therapy is hypnosis, call it hypnosis. I know: the word is scary. Not just to the patient – which is a good thing for a hypnotist – but also the clinician. “I practice EMDR” is infinitely more prestigious and socially acceptable than saying “I’m a hypnotist.”

By hiding hypnosis under the label EMDR, promoters and adherents cut off research into what I call “proper” hypnosis. Specifically, determining who can be hypnotized, how to measure and increase trance depth, and which techniques (including drugs) make it more effective.

At the same time, combining EMDR with NLP and cognitive therapy continues the Western therapeutic tradition of making the patient responsible for the success of failure of their treatment.

I gave you the tools. It’s up to you to use them. Keep trying! Keep coming for treatment. With EMDR, therapists can leave a less-than-effective session or sessions humming It Izzint Me, knowing their financial future is assured.

The main difference between a hypnotist (not a hypnotherapist) and an EMDR practitioner: a hypnotist assumes total control over the subject’s mind. They are the alpha, the patient the beta.

While this relationship exists in all therapeutic relationships, the hypnotist accepts their alpha status without any reservations. He/she/they exploit it full force, from the moment the patient/subject sets eyes on the hypnotist.

The command used by a hypnotist is the easiest way to encapsulate the quantitative difference with EMDR. “From this moment on, you will…”

The patient isn’t given a choice. Which is just as well. Honestly, the patient doesn’t want one. They want their therapist to take control and make the problem go away. Period.

If the hypnotist - patient / alpha - beta relationship is established on the subconscious level, if the hypnotist has sufficient access to the patient’s subconscious mind, the patient will do what they’re told. They’ll take a long walk off a short pier, metaphorically speaking. Literally, too.

EMDR therapists consider a straight old-fashioned swinging watch hypnotic approach dangerous (for various reasons), ineffective (well they would say that) and fascistic (PC über alles).

I say the balls-to-the-wall hypnotic dynamic is significantly more effective than a hidden one. I’m happy to prove it to any EMDR practitioner or researcher willing to pit their technique against mine.

Again, EMDR works. Not all the time, but a hell of a lot more than traditional talking therapy. And again, EMDR is hypnosis, albeit watered down and combined with NLP and cognitive therapy.

I only wish its practitioners would get off their high horse and check out unfettered, unabashed hypnosis. Truth be told, a single hypnosis session can cure a patient of a life-long challenge.

Switching from EMDR to hypnosis would ruin therapists’ business model, but there’s a way around that (which I’ll explain in a separate post). But more people would be helped more quickly and completely with mainline hypnosis than EMDR. Wanna bet?

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