What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in the 1980s by psychologist and researcher Francine Shapiro.  EMDR is well researched and to date it has helped over a million people who have experienced psychological difficulties originating from some kind of traumatic experience such as rape, abuse, childhood neglect, violence, natural disasters, and road traffic accidents.  EMDR has also been proven to be successful in treating other issues such as complicated grief, phobias, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

EMDR therapy is a scientifically supported treatment for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) recommended by numerous organisations internationally such as the World Health Organisation and NICE (National Institute of Care and Health Excellence). It is characterised by standardised procedures and protocols that include a bilateral sensorial stimulation (repeated eye movements, gentle hand tapping or auditory cues) aimed at processing and working through memories of trauma and other adverse life experiences.

What is a traumatic memory?

Normally, we process difficult experiences naturally; it takes time but gradually the distressing feelings are less frequent and less intense until they become an integrated part of our life story without disrupting our day-to-day lives. However, when we are severely traumatised, either by an overwhelming event or by being repeatedly subjected to distress, this healing process may become overloaded, leaving the original disturbing experiences unprocessed. These unprocessed memories can be stored in the brain in a ‘raw’ form where they can be continually triggered when we experience events that remind us, consciously or unconsciously, of the original experience.  This is called an unresolved or ‘traumatic’ memory.

How does EMDR work?

Researchers are still unclear of how EMDR works so successfully but the theory is that EMDR activates each individual’s self-healing system.  It is thought that the bilateral stimulation accesses parts of the brain responsible for processing and integrating memories, and that this may be a similar process to that which occurs during the REM (rapid eye movement) dream stage of sleep.

How many sessions will I need?

The number of sessions of EMDR needed will vary according to the complexity of the issues involved. In general, the more isolated the traumatic memory being treated, the shorter the treatment tends to be.

What can I expect to experience during EMDR?

Some of us experience high levels of emotional and physical sensations that accompany the distressing unresolved memories that are being reprocessed.  EMDR does not cause these sensations, rather it is our own body and brain “digesting” and releasing the old memory in its attempt to heal and integrate itself.  Sometimes other material in the form of memories, thoughts, feelings, and dreams may continue to emerge between sessions.  This is normal and can be addressed in the following therapy session.

EMDR is a structured, client-centred approach, and you are always in control. EMDR is not a form of hypnosis and you are aware of what is happening at all times.

The research

There have been over 24 controlled studies supporting the efficacy of EMDR, making it the most thoroughly researched method in the treatment of trauma. The most recent studies with people suffering from a range of events such as rape, combat, bereavement, accidents, natural disasters, etc. have found that 84 – 90% of the participants no longer had Post-traumatic Stress Disorder following EMDR treatment.

A study conducted at Kaiser Permanente has reported that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple-trauma victims no longer had PTSD after a mean of six 50-minute EMDR therapy sessions.