Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

EMDR theory suggests the brain does not always process traumatic or adverse events the way it does other experiences. These events are stored with the emotions, body sensations and negative beliefs present at the time. When the memories are triggered, people re-experience the memory intensely, as the original images, beliefs, emotions and sensations are also activated.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy uses bi-lateral stimulation (BLS) to replicate REM (dream) sleep processing. It is REM sleep where memories are processed and moved from the episodic to the semantic memory. When this happens, the useful meaning from the event is stored and negative associations are discarded. Dr Francine Shapiro has described the process of EMDR therapy as follows (please see https://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/16/expert-answers-on-e-m-d-r/ f or the full interview with Dr Shapiro):

‘The eight phases of E.M.D.R. therapy begin with history taking, in which the presenting problems and early clinically significant life events are identified, and goals for the client’s fulfilling future set. The next phase involves preparing the client for memory processing. During processing, the client is directed to attend briefly to certain aspects of the memory while the information processing system is simultaneously stimulated. During this phase, the client engages in periodic sets of eye movements (sometimes taps or tones) for approximately 30 seconds each. It is during this time that the process of transforming the “stuck memory” into a learning experience and an adaptive resolution is observed. New and useful emotions, thoughts and memories emerge, and old and counter-productive ones are resolved.’

‘Besides E.M.D.R. therapy, very few trauma treatments have a strong empirical basis. Two others that are well known are prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy. Both are forms of trauma-focused cognitive behaviour therapy, which require clients to describe in great detail their traumatic memory…

In contrast to the preceding treatments, the emphasis in E.M.D.R. is to help the information processing system make the automatic connections required to resolve the disturbance. Specific procedures are used to help clients maintain a sense of control during memory work as the therapist guides their focus of attention. They need only focus briefly on the disturbing memory during the processing while engaged in the bilateral stimulation (eye movements, taps or tones) as the internal associations are made. The client’s brain makes the needed links as new emotions, sensations, beliefs and memories emerge. All the work is done during the therapy sessions. It is not necessary for the client to describe the memory in detail, and no homework is used.’

What is EMDR Therapy Used For?

EMDR was originally developed as a trauma therapy. Over time it has been found to be effective with many problems including anxiety, depression, addictions, grief and pain. Adults and children can be treated using EMDR therapy.

EMDR therapy is not suitable for you if there are ongoing or possible future legal proceedings related to traumatic memories. Distressing aspects of memories may be changed by the brain to be more tolerable, or disappear completely during EMDR sessions. This affects the ability to recall details which may be necessary in giving evidence.

If you are interested in EMDR therapy, you may like to read Dr Francine Shapiro’s book ‘Getting Past Your Past’.