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 in Palo Alto, USA, she published the first research data to support its benefits in 1989.
There has been a wealth of research conducted demonstrating the benefits of EMDR in treating psychological trauma and PTSD arising from experiences as diverse as war related experiences, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, natural disaster, assault, surgical trauma, road traffic accidents and workplace accidents.
EMDR is also increasingly used to help individuals with other issues including phobias, anxiety, pain management, phantom limb pain and depression.
How it works
When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and, therefore, their brain may be unable to process the situation in the way a ‘normal’ memory would be processed. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level.
When the distressing memory is recalled, it is like the person is re-experiencing (rather than remembering) what they saw, heard, smelt, thought, felt with distressing consequences.
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 without warning.
Sometimes only elements of the distressing memory are present such as body symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat or pain without a visual or auditory memory of the event. This can create a disconnect between what the person is experiencing and the original distressing event. This can result in the person thinking that the cause of their distress is in the present when it in in fact a remnant of a past experience.
EMDR works by alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps, this seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system. During the process the memories seem to lose their intensity, so they become 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. It may also be that getting the client to concentrate on left-right stimulation whilst thinking of the distressing memory stops the brain from becoming overwhelmed and allowing the distressing aspects to be processed. EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it is images, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, thoughts or beliefs.