What is EMDR?

EMDR is the common name for Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing, a highly effective form of psychotherapy devised by Dr Francine Shapiro.

Its originator, Dr Francine Shapiro, discovered by accident that disturbing thoughts she was having seemed to disappear as she moved her eyes in rapid sideways movements.

The approach was developed initially as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was found to be a great success with veterans of the Vietnam War.  In 2000, EMDR was recognised by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies as an effective treatment for PTSD.  The Northern Ireland Department of Health subgroup, CREST, followed suit in 2003 and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK in 2005.

What Happens in EMDR?  When we receive sensory information it passes through an emotional filter (the Amygdala) in the right half of the brain.  If there is nothing emotionally-charged, the information then passes through another structure (the Hippocampus) that processes the information for its time and space properties and allows it to pass to the left hemisphere.  This experience is then stored normally in memory.

However, when incoming sensory information is emotionally-charged (e.g. traumatic), it gets stuck in the Central Nervous System (CNS) in the right hemisphere of the brain.  It does not get processed in time and space so, when reminders occur, the stuck memory is triggered and feels emotionally that it is happening in the present.  This accounts for flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares.

EMDR therapists help clients reprocess their traumatic memories by using a process that involves repeated left-right (bilateral) stimulation of the brain while noticing different aspects of the traumatic memory. The bilateral stimulation is achieved through either rapid eye movements across the field of vision, auditory tones or clicks,  or tactile stimulation of alternate sides of the body.  It is believed that the bilateral stimulation of EMDR creates biochemical changes in the brain that aid processing of information.  Theorists suggest that the mode of action occurs in the Limbic System, where the amygdala and hippocampus are located.

In EMDR sessions, therapists initially ask their clients to bring up an image that represents the worst part of the incident for them now (remember the image is locked in the CNS).  They then elicit what negative thought about the client is triggered by the image: this is a core belief that has been affected by the experience.  Thirdly, the emotion that is generated by triggering the negative belief is then ascertained and, finally, where a related sensation is located in the client’s body is then identified.

Therapists then ask their clients to link together the four components and then they commence the bilateral stimulation of the brain.  The therapist makes regular checks on what the client is experiencing and guides them through the process where the client’s brain does the healing, much like the body healing a cut.

At the end of a session, clients often report that the experience is “in the past… it’s over”.  Other clients report a “spiritual experience”.  Whatever way the experience is described by the client, the process is effective and rapid compared with other therapies that are in general use today.

*Kind thanks to TMR Health Professionals for permission to use information from their website.