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EMDR

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that is designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.

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EMDR was developed, and is best known, as a therapy for treating trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

EMDR is used to treat a range of mental health difficulties including:

• Post Traumatic Disorder (PTSD)

• Anxiety Based Disorders (including panic attacks)
• Low self-esteem
• Depression
• Stress

• Unresolved Grief

• Emotional Dysregulation

• Personality Difficulties

• Pain Management

• Sleep disturbances

• Addiction.

Many of these difficulties may actually be rooted in some kind of trauma, whether witnessing or experiencing an event like; a car accident, a violent crime, social humiliation, bullying, sexual, physical, emotional or any form of abuse, either during childhood or as an adult, a medical trauma, and it isn’t always obvious that this is the case.

You can listen to a BBC Radio 4 interview with an EMDR client by clicking here. (iPM: We Start With Your Stories - The finger wagging cure - BBC Sounds)

When would I need EMDR?

Psychological and emotional trauma:  Anything that has overwhelmed an individual’s ability to process and integrate psychologically something that has happened to them is likely to be experienced as traumatic by that person.

It is a very individual thing, and what might seem challenging or even exciting to one person could be traumatic for another.

When you are involved in a distressing event, you may feel overwhelmed and your brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become “frozen”. When you recall the memory, you can re-experience the event in the present and this can be disturbing. Sometimes, the memories are so distressing, you might try to avoid thinking about the traumatic event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.

 

Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at their own pace. It is important to appreciate that most people who have experienced a traumatic event will recover naturally from the symptoms of trauma, given time and the right support and conditions. But, if months have passed and you are still struggling, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.

Seek help for emotional or psychological trauma if you're:

  • Having trouble functioning at home or work

  • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression

  • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships

  • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks

  • Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma

  • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others

  • Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

 

Many people will have heard of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, but other diagnoses may be given when one or more conditions for a PTSD diagnosis are not present. It is not necessary to have a medical diagnosis of any kind in order to seek EMDR therapy. If you do have diagnosable PTSD, however, you may be able to get treatment through the NHS.

Why choose EMDR?

In EMDR therapy, the idea is that you are provided with a safe and non-judgemental space to process the frozen memory so that it can be stored more appropriately.

An important difference from some other forms of trauma-focused treatments is that in EMDR therapy, it is not necessary to describe in detail to the therapist every step of what happened in the traumatic event being worked with. Nor is it necessary to relive the event over and over again as an essential part of the therapeutic process.

For individual memories that you may find particularly difficult to talk about, it is possible not to tell the therapist anything about that memory at all, and still reprocess the memory. This would not perhaps be the best way to work with all the aspects of an entire traumatic event, but it is a possibility for individual memories. This can help to maintain a greater sense of privacy and distance from the trauma.

Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way.

How does it work?

EMDR is based on the idea that traumatic events aren’t properly processed in the brain at the time they happen, perhaps because the person may feel so disturbed and overwhelmed their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. As a result, the event continues to affect us long after the actual trauma is over through disturbing experiences such as flashbacks, nightmares, and feelings of the trauma happening again.

Sometimes, the memories of a traumatic event are so distressing, you might actively try to avoid thinking about them to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings. Some people find that the distressing memories come to mind when something triggers a memory of the traumatic event, or sometimes the memories seem to just appear in the mind, uninvited.

When something reminds you of the trauma, you can re-experience the event intensely and vividly and as though it is happening in the present. You can experience the full force of the distress that you felt whenever the memory comes to mind. At this time, the brain isn’t able to tell the difference between the past and the present and so your body and brain can react as though it is happening again. 

This is where EMDR comes in. This therapy aims to change the way that the traumatic memories are stored in your brain. Once your brain is given the opportunity to properly process the memory in a safe space, you should be able to remember the traumatic events without experiencing the intensity and disruption of the disturbing emotional and physical reactions.

The idea is that you can “reprocess” a disturbing memory to help you move past it. EMDR helps to facilitate processing of sensory memories into the long-term cognitive memory. The traumatic event then takes up its rightful place in your biographical memory rather than continuing to distress you on a regular or even daily basis. It helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

What happens in an EMDR session?

During an EMDR therapy session, your therapist will ask you to briefly focus on a trauma memory. Then, they’ll instruct you to perform side-to-side eye movements while thinking of the memory. This engages both sides of your brain and is termed bilateral stimulation. The therapist will instruct you to hold your head still and track your eyes from left to right and back, up and down or diagonally. If you have visual processing issues, your therapist may use rhythmic tapping on both of your hands or play audio tones directed towards both ears.

EMDR utilises the natural healing ability of your body. It works by activating both the right and left sides of the brain while recalling a distressing event. This allows the memory to be reprocessed and the emotion attached to it to be released. The activation of the left and right sides of the brain is achieved through bilateral stimulation.

One theory behind how EMDR works is that it helps the two sides of the brain to communicate with one another — the left “thinking” side, which specializes in logic and reason, and the right “feeling” side, which specializes in emotion.

The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day.

 

Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings. With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.

History of EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, was developed in the 1980s after the chance discovery by an American Psychologist, Francine Shapiro, that bilateral eye movements helped her process the disturbance of negative thoughts and memories.

 

A great deal of research has been done on EMDR therapy and its efficacy for the treatment of psychological trauma has been established beyond doubt (Bisson, Roberts, Andrew, Cooper, & Lewis, 2013). As a result, EMDR is now a recommended trauma treatment in many national and international guidelines.

 

EMDR was developed – and is best known – as a therapy for treating trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a treatment for PTSD.

 

EMDR has continued to be developed over the last 25 years and is now used widely to treat a range of conditions.

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