Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This Spotlight edition explores the therapeutic approach of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, known as EMDR.

EMDR is a therapeutic approach which helps people to process difficult life events and the emotional distress they can experience as a result.  

It was originally developed by Psychologist, Francine Shapiro in 1987 after she noticed that disturbing thoughts changed to less disturbing thoughts following spontaneous eye movements.  Not only that, but she noticed that this reduction in distress and anxiety was accompanied by more adaptive and functional beliefs about the original disturbing thoughts.  

EMDR was initially discovered to be effective for people experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  It is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as an effective and evidence-based therapy as such.  It has since been shown to be effective with a variety of mental health difficulties and with people of all ages.

What are the aims of EMDR?

EMDR aims to reduce the emotional response caused when recalling difficult memories resulting from a traumatic or distressing event(s).  It also aims to reduce the problems associated with the exposure to the event(s), such as, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares.  

When we are exposed to traumatic or distressing experiences our beliefs about ourselves and the world itself can be negatively affected.  The resulting negative core belief can affect our ability to function as we once did and can generate an emotional reaction in response to the memory itself or to situation we might find triggering.  In short, EMDR helps to reduce the impact of the emotional response by processing and desensitising you to the original memory.

It is a unique therapy

When I first heard about EMDR I felt sceptical about its approach…  

When I first trained in EMDR I still felt sceptical…  

When I first practiced it within a training setting, I began to understand why it is often described as a unique therapy… but I still felt sceptical. 

So, what changed for me and why do I think it’s such a great therapy now?  Well, not only do I now understand the theory underpinning the approach, but I have used it effectively with many clients.  My scepticism of EMDR has been replaced with enthusiasm.  I have seen clients with symptoms of PTSD experience a reduction in their distress within as few as 2 or 3 sessions.  Nevertheless, EMDR does employ a less conventional approach when compared to other talking therapies, and this can feel unnerving for some clients in the beginning.  Allow me to demystify this unique and effective therapy by explaining the theory behind EMDR.

Here comes the science bit…

He following explanation is taken from the EMDR Association UK and Ireland; the professional accreditation body for EMDR therapists.   

“EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side, hear a sound in each ear alternately, or feel a tap on each hand alternately. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity.

The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day. Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do (Gunter & Bodner, 2008). When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way.”

In summary

EMDR is a unique and effective therapy which can produce fast results for children and adults experiencing emotional distress as a result of traumatic and distressing life events.  EMDR is a complex therapeutic process that should always be delivered by properly trained therapists. 

If you would like to know more, please contact me at jodoulgas@collective-psychology.com  

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