What is EMDR Therapy?

The brain has a natural capacity for healing in the same way the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy developed in the late 1980s by Dr Francine Shapiro who discovered by chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts and feelings under certain conditions. Dr Shapiro utilised this natural process of eye movement to successfully treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and since then EMDR has been used to treat a wide range of mental health problems.

The validity and reliability of EMDR Therapy has since been established through rigorous research and it is the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma. Recommended as one of the treatments of choice for PTSD by both NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 2005) and for both adults and children by WHO (World Health Organisation, 2013), EMDR is one of the most exciting an innovative therapies to emerge for the treatment of trauma in recent decades.

What happens when a person is traumatised?

Most of the time your brain and body routinely manage new information without you even being aware of it. However, when things out of the ordinary happen and an individual becomes traumatised by an overwhelming event (e.g., accidents, assault, sudden or traumatic bereavement, natural disasters, war etc) or by being repeatedly exposed to distress (abuse/neglect, domestic violence etc) your natural coping mechanisms can become overloaded. People who have experienced traumatic events may feel such intense emotion that their brain becomes overwhelmed. The brain is therefore unable to process information as it usually does, and distressing experiences become ‘frozen in time’. These traumatic events become stored in the brain in their original ‘raw’ form leading to intrusive memories and disturbing emotions. This can lead to people repeatedly reliving the original event even though it is no longer happening. Re-experiencing in this way can be just as distressing to the individual because the images, emotions, sounds, smells etc are as intense as when first experienced. Unprocessed traumatic memories can also be triggered if a person experiences similar events to difficult experiences they have been through in their lifetime. Even when the memories from the past have been long forgotten by a person, the painful feelings such as anger, despair, fear, anxiety, panic, are continually triggered in the present. This can severely impact on all aspects of a person’s life, affecting the way they see themselves, others, and the world around them.

Following successful EMDR treatment, memories of such events are no longer painful when they are recalled. What happened can still be remembered, but no longer carries the same heightened emotional charge and people report their memories are either no longer distressing or the distress is significantly reduced to a level that feels manageable. The brain has a natural capacity to heal and EMDR can be thought of as a therapy which assists the brain in working through distressing material utilising a natural process. 

EMDR helps clients to reprocess their traumatic memories by using repeated left-right (bilateral) stimulation of the brain while noticing different aspects of the traumatic memory. Experiences during a session that a therapist may ask you to report back to them may include changes in images, thoughts, feelings, somatic (body) responses etc. With repeated sets of eye movements the memory tends to change in such a way that it looses its intensity. It is also possible that other associated memories within the memory network may heal at the same time, without the need to target every memory from the past.

Bi-lateral stimulation is usually in the form of eye movements where the therapist uses either a light bar or hand movements. However tactile handheld devices, tapping and auditory sound through headphones can also be used and seem to be effective for people who prefer to keep their eyes closed during the processing of traumatic memory.

What can EMDR be used for?

In addition to PTSD and Psychological Trauma, EMDR can help with:

  • Anxiety and Panic attacks
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Addictions
  • Sleep issues
  • Self-esteem and performance anxiety
  • Complicated/complex grief

Adapted from EMDR UK.