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What is Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)?

The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during  rapid  eye  movement (REM) sleep. Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilising this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems.

Commonly, EMDR is effective at dealing with issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, and similar anxiety-provoking conditions that occur after a traumatic event. Although this solution appears to approach psychological problems in a somewhat unusual way – ignoring medications and talking therapies – it can be useful for many people.

Methods Used in EMDR

Unlike psychotherapy and counseling, EDMR does not use talking strategies for healing, but instead focuses on the rhythmic eye movements that we all experience each day, finding ways to use those movements to dampen the power of emotionally-charged memories.

A treatment session for EMDR can last for up to ninety minutes, during which time a therapist will move his or her fingers back and forth in front of your face, asking you to follow the motions with your eyes. At the same time, your therapist may ask you to recall a disturbing event, recalling the emotions and bodily sensations that go alongside it.

Gradually, your EMDR therapist will push you to shift your thoughts to more pleasant ones, asking you to rate your level of distress before and after each session with the hope that your uncomfortable memories will eventually become less disabling. Though most research into EMDR has examined it’s potential in PTSD sufferers, it can be used to treat other psychological problems too, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction
  • Stress
  • Phobias
  • Sleep problems
  • Complicated grief
  • Addictions
  • Pain relief, phantom limb pain
  • Self-esteem and performance anxiety

The Goals and Outcomes of EMDR

The foundations of EMDR indicate that the mind is capable of healing from psychological trauma in a manner that’s similar to the body recovering from physical trauma. For instance, when you cut yourself, your body closes and cleans the wound. If something continues to irritate the wound, then it may fester, scar, or cause additional pain. However, if you can remove the irritation, then healing resumes.

EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events can take place with mental processes. The brain’s system for processing information naturally works to push towards mental health, and if the system is imbalanced by the impact of disturbing events, healing cannot continue. EDMR therapy attempts to remove the blocks towards mental health, using eight-phase treatments.

During an EMDR treatment, eye movement stimulation is used, once a clinician has determined which memory to target first. Additionally, the idea is to focus on creating natural movements with the eyes by asking the patient to follow the movement of a hand or finger, while recalling memories. The system replicates REM sleep, a time in which the mind can better process difficult thoughts and feelings.

In successful cases of EMDR therapy, the meanings and feelings associated with painful events can be reduced on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim might shift their feelings of disgust and horror to a reminder that they are a strong survivor. Unlike talk therapy, the insights that clients gain from EMDR therapy come from their own emotional and intellectual processes, rather than the interpretation of a clinician.

Ideally, each patient will complete their EMDR therapy experience feeling empowered by the experienced that once disabled them.

What happens when you are traumatised?

Most of the time your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatised by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to distress (e.g. childhood neglect), your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being "unprocessed". Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the limbic system of your brain in a "raw" and emotional form, rather than in a verbal “story” mode. This limbic system maintains traumatic memories in an isolated memory network that is associated with emotions and physical sensations, and which are disconnected from the brain’s cortex where we use language to store memories. The limbic system’s traumatic memories can be continually triggered when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences  you  have  been  through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited. EMDR helps create the connections between your brain’s memory networks, enabling your brain to process the traumatic memory in a very natural way.

Should You Consider EMDR Treatment?

Though EMDR therapy is still a relatively new therapeutic technique, it’s experiencing significant success across the globe as a natural process for managing thoughts and emotions. During EMDR, the therapist and client become partners on a journey to removing traumatic energy, working to transcend the pain of past experiences so that the client can return to their natural state of being. The best way to determine if EMDR therapy is right for you, may be to schedule a consultation with a clinician. During this consultation, you will be able to discuss the unique nature of your circumstances, and discover more about what the therapy solution could do for you.

What is an EMDR session like?

EMDR utilises the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated simply by asking you to watch the therapist's finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. 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.

How long does treatment take?

EMDR can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer psychotherapy programme. EMDR sessions can be for 60 to 90 minutes.

Will I will remain in control and empowered?

During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as  possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.

Can anyone benefit from EMDR?

EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts, which sometimes occur during sessions.

What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?

EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now nineteen controlled studies into EMDR making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, (Details on www.emdr-europe.org and www.emdr.org) and is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for PTSD.