Understanding Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)


What is EMDR?

Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, which is based on the mind’s ability to heal itself naturally, much like the body does. Typically this mental healing occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.  Shapiro applied this natural mechanism through EMDR therapy to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). EMDR facilitates the accessing and processing of traumatic memories and other adverse life experience to bring these to an adaptive resolution. It is continued to be used today to effectively treat a wide range of mental health issues.

How your brain reacts to trauma

Typically the brain and body, manages new experiences and information without your awareness. But when individuals are traumatised by an overwhelming event like a bad accident, or they’re repeatedly subjected to distress, like while living in a war zone, their natural coping mechanism become overloaded. This can cause the disturbing experiences to remain unprocessed in the brain and stored in the limbic system. Rather than live in a verbal “story” mode, they remain in a "raw" and emotional form because they are isolated in the memory network associated with physical sensations and emotions, that is not connected to the cortex where we use language to hold memories. These traumatic memories can be triggered when experiencing similar events to the initial trauma. The original traumatic memory is frequently already forgotten, but the painful feelings of anxiety, despaid, panic, or anger are still triggered. This can affect one’s ability to enjoy the present moments, and inhibit them from learning from new experiences.

This is where EMDR comes in. It helps connect memory networks in the brain, allowing it to process the traumatic memory naturally. These connections are thought to result in complete information processing, new learning, elimination of emotional distress, and development of cognitive insights.

Credit: LFS of Nebraska

Issues EMDR Treats

Beyond its initial use for PTSD, EMDR has been found beneficial in treating additional issues such as:

  • Depression
  • Phobias
  • Stress, anxiety and panic attacks
  • Complicated Grief
  • Eating Disorders
  • Addiction
  • Sleep Issues
  • Performance Anxiety and Self-Esteem
  • Phantom Limb and General Pain Relief

EMDR Treatment

EMDR treatment focuses on three time periods, the past (traumatic experiences), the present (experiences triggering), and the positive future actions through skills and attitudes. These periods are focused on using an eight phased treatment plan.

After a thorough assessment, patients are asked specific questions to recall their traumatic experience. Eye movements, like those during REM sleep, are recreated by watching the therapist's finger or a bar of light moving backwards and forwards across the patient’s field of vision. The eye movements will last briefly and then cease. Patients share the experiences such as a change in images, thoughts and feelings during each of the sets of eye movements.

After repeated sets of eye movements, the memory can change in a way that it loses its painful impact and becomes more of a neutral memory. Additional associated memories may also heal at this time. The linking of related memories can lead to a rapid and dramatic improvement in many aspects of the patient’s quality of life.

Process of EMDR

Can anyone benefit from EMDR?

While EMDR can expedite therapy by resolving the impact of past traumas, it is not, right for everyone. Because of the nature of the treatment, patients must be willing to experience the strong and possibly disturbing thoughts during treatment. Fortunately the painful thoughts are short lived but some patients may not be up for it.

How long does treatment take?

Individual session of EMDR can last between 60 and 90 minutes. Treatment can be done on its on or as a part of a larger psychological treatment program.

Will I will remain in control and empowered?

Image Courtesy of Dr. Axe

EMDR is not a form of hypnotism, and patients remain in complete control during treatment and can stop at any time.  They will remain wide awake and fully alert. Throughout the session, therapist will intervene as little as possible to support your self-healing abilities. The reprocessing and new connections and insights arise naturally from within. Because of this most people see EMDR as a natural and empowering treatment.

What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?

EMDR has successfully helped over a million individuals. There is significant research that shows it is effective in noticeably reducing symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder in up to 78% of patients. Currently there are nineteen controlled studies into EMDR making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma, and is recommended as an effective treatment for PTSD by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

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