What is EMDR?
EMDR is an acronym for ‘Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing’. EMDR is a powerful psychological treatment method that was developed by an American clinical psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s. As a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute, she published the first research data to support the benefits of the therapy in 1989.
EMDR is a complex and powerful therapy. Therapists always have a background in mental health before undertaking training in EMDR.
How does EMDR work?
When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level. When a person recalls the distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes the memories are so distressing, the person tries to avoid thinking about the distressing event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.
Some find that the distressing memories come to mind when something reminds them of the distressing event, or sometimes the memories just seem to just pop into mind. The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.
In the process the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity, so that the memories are less distressing and seem more like ‘ordinary’ memories. The effect is believed to be similar to that which occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side. EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it was what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt or thought.
EMDR is not simply the use of eye movements. Rather it is a comprehensive therapeutic approach with principles, protocols and procedures with the goal of reducing distress in the shortest period of time.
What can I expect from my EMDR Therapist?
When you first meet with your EMDR therapist, your therapist will spend time getting to know your history. This generally includes the kind of distress you are experiencing, the kind of difficulties have you experienced, if you have physical problems, if you are taking medication and explore the support you have. If your therapist feels EMDR is suited for your difficulty, then s/he will describe the EMDR model to you and explain the theory.
You can ask your therapist questions and express any concerns you may have. Your therapist will spend some time doing some relaxation exercises with you, which could include ‘safe or pleasant place’ exercises, guided visualisation, deep muscle relaxation, breathing retraining etc.
Once you and your therapist feel that you are sufficiently prepared, you can then target a distressing memory with the eye movements or other forms of left-right alternating stimulation, such as sound or taps. Your therapist will ask you to select an image that represents the distressing event. You will then be asked to think about negative and positive thoughts, your feelings, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body.
Your therapist will then begin the eye movements while you hold the image in mind. After each set of eye movements your therapist will ask you what came to mind or what you noticed during the eye movements. During the eye movements you may experience the distressing event quite intensely to start with, but this distress generally reduces as the memory is processed with EMDR.
Your therapist will continue with the eye movements until your distress is reduced as much as possible. Your therapist will then ask you to think about your positive thought and also check whether there is any part of your body where you still feel distress. Before the end of the session, your therapist will give you time to feel calm again, using the safe-pleasant place exercise or relaxation techniques.
What can I expect after my EMDR session?
EMDR treatment generates a certain amount of ‘momentum’ to your thinking and conscious awareness. In other words the treatment does not just stop immediately after your session. During your eye movement session a lot of memories may come to mind and people find that after the session they may think about these memories.
If these memories are distressing, then for a day or two you may still feel distressed. During this time it is recommended that you take care of yourself and use your relaxation technique to sooth yourself. It is recommended that you do not do anything too stressful straight after your EMDR session, such as write an exam. Some people report that after the session they seem to recall more aspects of the events that they hadn’t thought about for a while.
Some report that they dream more. Everybody is different so keep a note of your experience after the session and discuss this with your therapist. As the distress decreases with EMDR, people report feeling a sense of relief. At the end of EMDR therapy, many people report feeling no distress at all when recalling the distressing event.