Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is, in simple terms, a therapy in which the client is asked to remember a traumatic or distressing event while at the same time being given ‘bilateral stimulation’.
What does ‘bilateral stimulation’ involve?
Bilateral stimulation is stimulation to both hemispheres, or sides, of the brain. In EMDR this stimulation consists of either using the eyes to track the therapist’s hand movements from side to side or vibrations or tapping alternating on both sides of the body or tones delivered through one ear, then the other, via headphones.
Background to EMDR
The EMDR technique was developed by Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, to reduce the impact of trauma-related disorders caused by exposure to distressing and/or traumatising life episodes.
When a person is involved in, or witnesses, a distressing event they may feel overwhelmed and their brain will perhaps be unable to process the information like it would a normal memory. Because to some extent this is a normal reaction immediately following a traumatic occurrence, it is only possible to tell whether the traumatic event has had a lasting effect 6-9 months after it has occurred.
Redefining traumatic memories
According to Shapiro’s theory, when a traumatic or distressing event occurs, it may overwhelm normal healthy cognitive and neurological mechanisms. If this happens, the memory of the event is then inadequately processed and appears to become frozen or ‘stuck’ on a neurological level. This can lead to flashbacks, anxiety and other distressing symptoms.
The aim of EMDR therapy is to stimulate the frozen system and process the memories differently, thereby reducing their negative influence and allowing clients to develop healthier coping mechanisms.
The effect is often described using the metaphor of imagining that a trauma sufferer’s brain is similar to a room full of filing cabinets and the traumatic memory is stored in the wrong place. EMDR is, in this analogy, like pulling out the filing cabinet and having a good look at the memory and then re-filing it in a better place where it causes far less distress.
What does it feel like to have EMDR therapy?
During the process of EMDR, participants often report that distressing memories lose much of their intensity and begin to feel more like other, ordinary memories. Researchers believe the effect is like the natural effects of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep in which a person’s eyes move rapidly from side to side.
An EMDR therapy session is unlike most other therapy sessions. Usually, the therapist will help the client to focus on various aspects of the traumatic event: memories, thoughts, emotional feelings and physical sensations. Whilst the client focuses on these, the therapist bilaterally stimulates the client’s brain through eye movements, tapping, sound or other widely used techniques.
How does it work?
It is the bilateral stimulation that enables the reprocessing of psychological and emotional material. Bilateral stimulation is continued with inputs from both the client and the therapist until the memory becomes less disturbing and is accompanied by an increase in more realistic beliefs about oneself and the world.
EMDR seems to facilitate the natural healing processes of the brain. During the session, clients may experience powerful emotions. At the end, there is usually a great reduction in their level of distress. The client is not hypnotised during EMDR and the goal of EMDR therapy is not to remove the memory entirely; rather it is to reduce its negative effect on the client.
Scientific research and EMDR
Scientific research and the National Institutes for Clinical Excellence (NICE) have established EMDR as effective treatment for post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and it is for cases of PTSD that it is most widely used and most well known. However, it has also been successfully used in the therapeutic treatment of chronic pain, phobias, panic and some anxiety disorders. Finally, it has been found to have healing effects in cases of grief, sexual and/or physical abuse and disturbing memories.
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Therapists who work with: Abuse, Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), Post-traumatic stress.