With an estimated three in 100 people in the UK experiencing PTSD during their lifetime, finding effective ways to respond to traumatic events is essential for us to heal. One option, already proven to be highly effective, is EMDR. Here, we discover exactly what the treatment entails...
What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the emotional distress, and psychological symptoms, that can result from disturbing life experiences. Developed in the 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro, EMDR was originally created to resolve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although nowadays it has much wider applications. More than 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use EMDR, and millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.
How does EMDR work?
Usually, when an experience is upsetting, our “adaptive information processing” capacity means that we digest and make sense of the experience, and in time our distress goes away. However, if an experience, or a set of experiences over time, overwhelm us, this natural process can be disrupted. When this happens, the memories get stored with negative emotions, uncomfortable physical sensations, and limiting beliefs. The unresolved memories are not then linked to our wider memory networks, and so these upsetting emotions, thoughts and sensations, can colour our perception of what is happening now. This means that, in a very real sense, the past is present. We react here and now to what was actually there and then, and this can be extremely upsetting and disruptive.
EMDR makes use of the mind’s natural ability to heal from disturbing experiences. The therapist uses an eight-step process to safely prepare you to process troubling experiences, and to integrate your changed experience into your mind-body system.
The processing element involves alternating attention between the past and the present, with stimulation of both sides of your mind/body system when you attend to the past. This prompts spontaneous connection-making, re-interpretation of the past, and integration of previously stuck memories into your wider memory network. The result is that the troubling memories stop being troubling; they recede into the past where they belong. This leaves you free to live in the here and now.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?
EMDR was originally developed to assist people who had been traumatised and had symptoms of PTSD. But EMDR therapy can also be effective in treating the “everyday” memories that cause people to experience low self-esteem, feelings of powerlessness, and attachment difficulties. There are protocols aimed at addictions, OCD and many other conditions. EMDR may help if you have persistent feelings and/or body sensations that are just not going away, or if you are caught in cycles of undermining thoughts and behaviours. The therapy works by identifying when and where these were initiated, and resolving those experiences.
What’s the evidence?
Many studies have been conducted on EMDR therapy, across a broad spectrum of conditions the treatment could help with. These include a study published in the Journal of EMDR Practice and Research in 2013 on the use of EMDR with cancer patients, which found that 95% of those treated with EMDR no longer had PTSD symptoms after eight treatment sessions.
Another study, published in Psychotherapy, found that 100% of single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after six 50-minute sessions. In a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.
Alongside these examples, there has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it is now recognised as an effective form of treatment for trauma, and other disturbing experiences, by the World Health Organisation and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK.
What can you expect?
So how does EMDR work? Firstly, clarity is needed about what is bringing you to therapy, and what you want the outcome to be. With your therapist, you’ll spend time gently piecing together the key experiences that contribute to your symptoms, and see which are the most pressing to address.
Next, safety will be considered, because EMDR is not appropriate for everyone. If it’s right for you, your therapist will assist with building your ability to stay with uncomfortable emotions, body sensations and thoughts, and sometimes in building resilient aspects of yourself in case they are needed during processing. For some people, doing this work alone is enough to resolve difficulties.
EMDR processing then involves getting you fully into your distress reaction, to open up the brain circuits that are holding the distress. This is done by targeting a specific memory, and experiencing its current emotional, physical and cognitive effects. It’s sometimes uncomfortable, but is generally not as unpleasant as people fear. Although one memory is targeted at a time, you may move about between memories as processing unfolds – your therapist will help the work stay focused.
EMDR is a dance of attention between there and then, and here and now, alongside stimulation of both sides of the body (called bi-lateral stimulation and done with eye movements, touch/holding buzzers, and/or using headphones). It works by enabling your mind-body system to make connections between vulnerable, isolated parts of you and the wealth of resources that you already have that can help them. You continue working with memories until your symptoms are resolved, or reduced to your satisfaction. This can take a few, or many, sessions, depending on the nature of your history and symptoms.
How does EMDR help people?
Clients often want to know how the change will happen. The truth is, I’ve not seen two cases that are the same. While the specific way memories are processed is highly individual, what is common is that levels of distress invariably come down during EMDR processing.
Some clients may experience distress between sessions for a while, with emotion, vivid dreams and sleep disturbance, or troubling thoughts. But as the work progresses, people tend to experience changing beliefs about themselves and their past situations, with positive, enabling beliefs spontaneously appearing and becoming deeply held. Physical sensations and emotions also tend to change, with disturbance felt in the body to begin with, and not later on. The protocols used in EMDR ensure that the changes needed have happened, and that memories are fully resolved before the work is complete.