Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
EMDR is a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movements), which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories.
What is EMDR therapy?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is effective for treating psychological trauma from varied experiences such as war-related experiences, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, surgical trauma, natural disaster, road traffic accidents, assault, panic attacks, complicated grief, workplace accidents, and personality disorders.
EMDR therapy explained
EMDR is a psychological treatment designed specifically for working with the effects of psychological trauma. EMDR suggests that many psychological difficulties are the result of distressing life experiences that have not been processed or stored in memory properly.
Normally, memories are processed and integrated using the individual’s past experience of themselves and the world they live in. However, when you are involved in a distressing experience, you may feel overwhelmed and may be unable to process the information. The distressing memory becomes ‘frozen or stuck’ without you adequately processing it to an adaptive resolution and can continue to have a powerful influence on your life many years after the event.
When you try to recall the distressing memory, it can often trigger a re-experience of what you saw, smelt, tasted, heard, or felt (‘as if it’s happening now’). Sometimes, the memories are so distressing that you may avoid thinking about the event in order to avoid the distressing feeling.
EMDR stimulates the frozen or blocked memory/information processing system and can help you reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it was what you saw, smelt, tasted, heard, or felt.
What should I expect from an EMDR session?
1. It’s not just about ‘eyes’! - EMDR is not just about eye movements, it is a comprehensive therapeutic approach with guiding principles, protocols and procedures targeted at reducing distress in the shortest possible time.
2. You will learn how to manage difficult emotions - during an EMDR therapy session, your therapist will take a thorough history and provide you with the necessary resources to manage the processing of your distressing memories. These might include:
- ‘safe or calm place’ exercises
- guided visualization
- deep muscle relaxation
- breathing techniques
3. It’s often short-term - while EMDR may access the traumatic memory, it does not dwell on them, and unlike some traditional therapies, the therapy is short-term – lasting maybe 3-10 sessions
4. It’s based on science - EMDR is a focused, ‘present-oriented therapy’ that utilizes some of the most recent research in the areas of neurophysiology.
5. Your therapist will guide you - using a gentle visual stimulus, for instance, moving their hand from side to side in front of your eyes, or other forms of left-right alternating stimulation, your therapist will ask you to focus on the negative and positive thoughts, your feelings, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body.
6. Desensitization - the process is designed and proven to desensitize you to the distressing memory and more importantly, to reprocess the memory so that the associated cognitions become more adaptive.
7. Time to reflect - after each set of eye movements, your therapist will ask you what came to mind or what you noticed during the eye movements.
8. It can take time and bravery - you may find EMDR sessions reactivate some features of traumatic memories, and this may be scary. However, with time, the distress normally reduces as the memory is processed. So, although EMDR sessions can be difficult, once they are over, health can emerge and you can begin to feel in charge of your life.
9. And.. relax - relaxation techniques are often taught, allowing patients to better handle difficult feelings in between sessions
How does EMDR work?
EMDR therapy is a complex, integrated form of psychotherapy. There are many theories about how it works, however, no one really knows precisely how eye movements achieves therapeutic effects.
There are several thoughts as to why it can be so effective for thousands of patients.
1. One theory is linked to the quality of the distressing memories; distressing memories are often rich in terms of color, smell, sound and feeling. It is thought that while the memories remain so full of sensory detail, they are strongly present in our minds and hence can result in hugely distressing and overwhelming flashbacks, panic attacks and anxiety.
2. It is thought that the EMDR therapy disrupts the way our brain stores the memory, resulting in the quality of the memory reducing.
3. Others have wondered whether the visual stimulus brings the brain into a state of ‘high alert’. When there is no real threat, the brain is in a flexible and efficient state to process the difficult thoughts that the patient is focusing on, which in turn allows the memories to lose their potency.
While we do not know exactly how EMDR works, we do know that many patients find it hugely effective.