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Stress Management with Law Enforcement Personnel: A Controlled Outcome Study of EMDR Versus a Traditional Stress Management Program

Sandra A. Wilson
Robert H. Tinker
Lee A. Becker
Carol R. Logan

Eye movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been shown to be effective for treating posttraumatic stress disorder, but its efficacy as a stress management tool for normal individuals in highly stressful occupations has not been demonstrated.  Sixty-two police officers were randomly assigned to either EMDR or a standard stress management program (SMP), each consisting of 6 hours of individualized contact.  At completion, officers in the EMDR condition provided lower ratings on measures of PTSD symptoms, subjective distress, job, stress, and anger; and higher marital satisfaction ratings than those in SMP.  The effects of EMDR were maintained at the 6-month follow-up, indicating enduring gains from a relatively brief treatment regimen for this subclinical sample of officers who were experiencing some level of stress from their job.


It has been widely accepted that law enforcement is one of the most stressful occupations in the country today (Eisenberg, 1975; Petrone & Reiser, 1985; Reese, 1986; Schaefer, 1985) not only for the officer, but for the family as well (Havassy, 1994; Invald, Gebbia, & Resko, 1994; Scrivner, 1994).  

 For many years the standard method that police departments have offered to their officers in order to cope with the stress of police work has been through the presentation of traditional stress management techniques (Honig & White, 1994).  These materials typically include topics such as: (a) defining the meaning of stress, (b) examining the physiological effects of stress, (c) skills for managing job stress, (d) skills for handling people pressures on the job, and (e) skills for balancing home and work life.  Most officers have been exposed to this material at several points in their career, either from educational materials presented in departmental in-service training or in the widely available popular literature.

The present study explores the use of an alternative method of stress management for officers, which could potentially expand the options currently available to police departments.  It makes use of a relatively new clinical approach called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), on which research was first published in 1989 (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b, 1995).

 Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., developed EMDR after noticing that her negative thoughts disappeared if she focused on them while moving her eyes back and forth in a rapid lateral fashion.  Intrigued by this observation, she followed up with research indicating that the method had promise in the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b) and developed a comprehensive 8-step protocol to maximize its application to individuals with diverse symptoms and diagnoses (Shapiro, 1995).  The eight phases are as follows: Client history and treatment planning, Preparation, Assessment, Desensitization, Installation, Body Scan, Closure, Reevaluation.  

 It is in the Desensitization Phase that eye movements or other forms of lateral left-right stimulation (e.g., tactile or auditory) are employed, giving the treatment its most unusual aspect (Shapiro, 1995).  She referred to EMDR as providing “accelerated information processing” due to its rapid resolution of symptoms (Shapiro, 1995), as documented by her original study and other research cited below.  Lipke (2000) noted that all therapies seek to “facilitate information processing” among other activities.  However, EMDR appears to be more powerful than other therapies in facilitating such processing, thus accelerating the therapeutic process and distinguishing EMDR from other forms of psychotherapy in ease and rapidity of problem resolution (Lipke, 2000).l

Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR, especially with traumatized individuals or individuals with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (Carlson, Chemtob, Rusnak, Hedlund, & Muraoka, 1998; Marcus, Marquis, & Sakai, 1997; Scheck, Schaeffer, & Gillette, 1998; Wilson, Becker, & Tinker, 1995, 1997).  For a meta-analysis of this literature seen Van Etten and Taylor (1998).  However, its effectiveness has not been clearly documented with individuals who may be anxious or stressed though their exposure to occupational stressors (e.g., police officers) but who may not have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) nor be highly traumatized.

The present study investigates the use of EMDR in the field of police psychology, striking new ground in applying the treatment to the area of occupational stress management that has traditionally employed an educational approach.  Such an educational approach may not engender enough personal and emotional change to be fully effective, just as an educational approach would not likely be fully effective with an individual with florid symptoms of hyperarousal, intrusion, or avoidance.  This study is based on the need to find a more effective intervention to help the majority of officers who are relatively normal individuals in a highly stressful job and not merely the ones most debilitated by stress.  It also examines the problem of job stress as it impacts the wider context of the officer’s life as ratings of officers by significant others were also assessed.

In the present study police officers were randomly assigned to either an EMDR stress management program (EMDR) or a traditional stress management program (SMP) presented via videotape and requiring thoughtful and written participation by the officers to the material presented.  A blind, independent assessor administered standardized assessments prior to each officer being assigned to EMDR or SMP (pretest), at the end of the program (posttest), and again at 6 months (follow-up).  The officer’s significant other also provided responses to assessments of marital satisfaction and the officer’s stress at those three times (also collected by the independent assessor).  The significant other did not participate in the stress management programs.



In the present study officers in the EMDR condition provided lower ratings on measures of PTSD, subjective distress, job stress, trait anger, slate anger at 6-month posttest and higher marital satisfaction ratings than the officers who participated in a typical stress management program (SMP).  The treatment effects for EMDR were maintained at the 6-month follow-up.  These findings imply that EMDR can be an efficient method of stress management for officers who are not traumatized but who are experiencing some level of job stress that affects their personal and occupational functioning in negative ways, and that the effects can be lasting.  Taken together with previously published research with PTSD, the present findings suggest that EMDR can be useful with police officers wither as a method of stress management or as a treatment for specific trauma and PTSD.