Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

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A Powerful New Technique for Treating Trauma

EMDR is an intriguing form of therapy that’s quickly gaining popularity amongst therapists and clients all over the world. However, it works differently from most conventional therapies and may seem a bit ‘out there’! Why? As you may have guessed from the name, EMDR relies on eye movements for its therapeutic effect. This means that during therapy your health practitioner would typically move their finger or hand from side to side across your field of vision, asking you to track this with your eyes. As strange as this may sound, research is suggesting that this strategy can be an incredibly powerful treatment strategy. Read on to learn more!

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that requires you to focus on a traumatic memory whilst the therapist directs you to track your eyes from side to side. Some therapists also use other strategies – hand tapping, beeping and flashing lights – to get you to shift your attention from side to side.

During this process, you will also be taught ways to manage distressing feelings that may arise when you’re thinking about a trauma. You would also learn to replace negative thought patterns with healthier ideas. Through this process, you would develop a greater sense of being able to control how you respond to traumatic memories.

How was EMDR invented?

A psychologist called Francis Shapiro was inspired to develop EMDR following a walk through the woods, during which she was mulling over some distressing thoughts. As she looked from side to side, taking in her surroundings, she experienced a sense of emotional release; and she guessed that this may have something to do with her eye movements. After trialling this technique with her own clients, she found that this also enabled them to feel more at peace; and this motivated her to develop EMDR as a therapeutic technique.

What can you expect during therapy?

Each session lasts between 60 and 90 minutes. The number of sessions required varies according to the needs of the client, but on average one can expect between 5 and 15 sessions, making EMDR a quick and cost-effective alternative to traditional forms of therapy. The treatment is generally divided into 8 phases:

  • Phase 1 is focused on history taking. Your therapist will assess your readiness to start therapy and together you’ll decide on a memory to focus on.
  • Phase 2 is the preparation stage. The clinician will teach you various coping strategies – such as mindfulness meditation and deep breathing – to use during and between sessions.
  • Phases 3 to 6 involve the actual EMDR treatment. You will be asked to focus on a specific memory while tracking the therapist’s bilateral hand movements. After each set of stimulation, you will be asked to let your mind go blank and to observe any thoughts, feelings or images that spontaneously arise. Over time, the negative thought will elicit less and less distress; and your therapist will guide you in replacing negative thoughts with more realistic and helpful ones.
  • Phase 7 requires you to keep a week-long record of any events, thoughts or feelings that arise in relation to your traumatic memory.
  • Phase 8 is a chance for you and your clinician to evaluate the treatment.

Who seeks this type of therapy?

EMDR is a highly effective form of treatment for children and adults struggling with PTSD – a disorder that one develops after experiencing a trauma such as witnessing a death, being robbed or surviving abuse. EMDR has also been used to treat other health concerns including depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction and eating disorders. More research is needed, however, to work out whether EMDR should be recommend for disorders other than PTSD.

EMDR is likely to appeal to people looking to deal with their trauma without having to spend too much time thinking about what happened! This is because EMDR focuses on the emotions that arise from a traumatic experience, so less time is spent talking about specific details. Beyond that, EMDR works faster than other forms of therapy; and there’s no homework given, as with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The recovery is also considered to be more internal and less reliant on therapist-guided interpretations, which is said to make therapy more empowering for the client.

Does it work?

The research seems to be giving a resounding: “Yes – EMDR works!” For example, multiple studies have been performed (including randomized controlled trials – the goal standing for evaluating medical treatment) to show that EMDR is effective in managing symptoms and improving people’s quality of life.

For this reason, EMDR is endorsed by prominent organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, The Department of Veteran’s Affairs and the World Health Organization. However, for EMDR to work properly the client must be appropriate (your therapist will help you determine whether this is the best option for you) and your psychologist should be an accredited EMDR practitioner.

How does it work?

There are several, rather complex theories which make sense of this mysterious therapy’s effectiveness. According to one theory, an EMDR session temporarily moves a trauma memory from its storage location in your long-term memory to your working memory (which is a form of short term memory). In doing this, you working memory is carrying a lot of information, including your therapist’s instructions, your eyes that are moving side to side and, of course, the difficult memory that you are trying to hold!

As a result, your working memory starts to get overloaded; which in this case is a good thing, because it causes your traumatic memory to become less intense and less charged with negative emotions! As your therapist guides you to experience more positive thoughts and feelings, these are attached to your traumatic memory which is a made more benign and manageable before getting deposited back into your long-term memory!

Another theory relates to sleep. In the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) phase of sleep – which is when we have the most vivid dreams – information received during the day is processed by the brain. However, if you have experienced a trauma, your sleep becomes disrupted by nightmares, because the information about the trauma is too disturbing for your brain to process.  These nightmares can cause you to wake up; and therefore, your REM sleep is interrupted which means that the information is not processed the way it should be. EMDR replicates REM sleep through a similar pattern of eye movements; and this is thought to allow for proper processing of the trauma!

Final Thoughts

EMDR is a bit unusual – there’s no doubt about that. For some, it brings to mind images of an 18th century charlatan soothsayer, swinging a pendulum back and forth amongst billowing clouds of incense. If so, your scepticism is understandable. However, don’t allow yourself to be fooled by EMDR’s apparent strangeness: as we have seen today, more and more research is showing that EMDR can be a highly effective technique, especially when it comes to treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)! If you’re struggling with traumatic memories and would like an effective, relatively fast and safe way of getting some support, speak to a psychologist near you about the possibility of starting EMDR..

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