What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful psychological treatment that was developed in the 1980s by an American clinical Psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro. EMDR is an evidence-based treatment recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Extensive research has demonstrated that EMDR can speed up the healing process following a traumatic experience and that the effects of treatment endure over time. Currently, EMDR treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders has been more thoroughly researched than any other form of psychological therapy.

EMDR treatment is based on the idea that a traumatic or distressing experience may overwhelm the brain’s coping mechanisms and the memories, beliefs, emotions, images and physical sensations associated with the experience gets stored or ‘frozen in time’ within  an isolated memory network. As a consequence, the brain is unable to adequately process the experience, which in turn causes an imbalance or block in the nervous system resulting in ongoing psychological disturbance. And it is not just major traumatic events that can cause problems; EMDR has revealed that even common childhood humiliations and disappointments can also have similar long lasting negative effects on our mental health.

In the same way that the body works to heal a physical injury such as a cut or wound, the brain is believed to have a similar system that facilitates mental health. This Adaptive Information Processing System is designed to relieve emotional pain and promote psychological wellbeing. EMDR therapy aims to stimulate this natural healing process by accessing and unblocking the distressing memories and their associated negative emotions, thoughts and sensations.

What happens in EMDR treatment?

EMDR treatment requires focusing on three time periods:  the past, present, and future.  This means that attention is given to past disturbing memories and related events, to current problematic situations, and also to assisting clients to develop the skills and attitudes needed for positive future actions and wellbeing.

A key component of EMDR treatment involves the use of procedures to stimulate rapid eye movements, which typically entails the client following the therapist’s hand moving rapidly across their visual field. Although the precise mechanisms of how EMDR works are not fully known, it is believed that the eye movements mimic what happens when we dream (i.e. REM sleep), during which time the brain processes or ‘makes sense’ of events and experiences that have happened during the day. Successfully processed material is integrated with other stored material and loses the ‘emotional charge’ it once held for the person. As a consequence, the person is able to learn what is useful from the negative experience and let everything else go.

Successful EMDR treatment is determined by the extent to which clients have not only resolved painful emotional material but also transformed its meaning. It is not uncommon for clients to report feeling empowered by past traumas and to have developed new and more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. EMDR treatment does not involve hypnosis, inducing a trance state or any kind of auto-suggestion. Clients are fully awake during treatment sessions.

Is EMDR right for me?

EMDR has been used successfully to treat psychological trauma related to:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Childhood sexual/physical abuse or neglect
  • Sexual and physical assault
  • Road traffic accidents
  • Workplace accidents
  • Natural disasters
  • Combat/War
  • Surgery

Although originally developed to treat adults with PTSD, EMDR has been shown to be helpful in treating other conditions such as phobias, anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, and as well as performance anxiety.

Recommended reading

Shapiro, F. (2012 ) Getting past your past: Take control of your life with self-help techniques form EMDR Therapy. New York: Rodale.

For more information about EMDR please visit EMDR UK and Ireland Association:  https://emdrassociation.org.uk/

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