What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) is an awkwardly named and relatively new form of psychotherapy which has been demonstrated by research to be particularly effective for the relief of post traumatic stress. It is recommended by NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) as the treatment of choice for PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder). It is also recognised to be effective in treating more chronic problems such as anxiety, phobias and poor self confidence.
In spite of its name, it is not necessary for EMDR to work with eye movements as such and it has been found that a variety of other ways of providing right/left alternating stimulation are just as effective. Common alternatives to eye movements are earphones with right/left sound or tapping gently on the hands.
A Chance Discovery
In 1987 a psychologist was walking in a park while thinking of something that troubled her. She noticed that her eyes were darting left and right and at the same time she came to a resolution on the matter that was troubling her. She experimented further with herself and with colleagues and discovered that the way she felt about the disturbing material changed. Further testing followed - initially with Vietnam war veterans who had been suffering from PTSD. Many of these men had been in traditional therapy for 15 - 20 years but still continued to have nightmares and flashbacks in which they felt they were still reliving the war. When they were treated with EMDR many of them were completely relieved of PTSD symptoms in a small number of sessions. From this initial research Francine Shapiro and collegues developed a working method to maximise the postive effects of this chance discovery.
Examples from Practice
Michael had discovered his son's body hanging in the garage. He was so shocked and distressed that he believed himself to be "beyond forgiveness" and he was too numb to feel his sorrow. Using EMDR he was able to shift over a couple of extended sessions to recognise that he had done "no worse than the next man" as a parent and was then able to be in touch with his deep sorrow and begin to grieve for the loss of his son.
Christopher had been having frequent flashbacks and nightmares after a car accident in which his car had repeatedly rolled over. During EMDR he worked through the whole event and appeared to reorientate himself in time and space. The flashbacks stopped and his comment on the capacity of his brain to heal itself was "What an amazing bit of kit!"
Laura is a competent and caring physiotherapist. She came for counselling because her self confidence could suddenly be undermined. During the therapy she recalled a time in her childhood when her mother had ridiculed her for being too sensitive. The therapist suggested using EMDR on this memory. The next week she reported that the session had been very powerful for her and had shifted a belief that she was responsible for other people's happiness. She was able to value her sensitivity rather than seeing it as a fault. And two months later she came back to say that she had been able to maintain her self confidence through a number of challenging situations.
Ellen had experienced a traumatic assault as a twelve year old and had been unable to speak about this for over 30 years. It took 14 months of very tough work with EMDR, which first addressed the trauma itself and then moved on to the consequences for her life of this event, before Ellen began to experience herself in a much more positive and hopeful way and was able to make new choices in her present life.
Mary had been bullied at work. After some time “off sick” she was feeling a lot better but when she thought about going back to work she got a disturbing feeling in the pit of her stomach. She focused on this feeling while receiving right/left stimulation. First the feeling intensified; then she wanted to cry; then she started to feel strong and said: “I can’t let people treat me like that”; then she felt ten feet tall; her energy came down and she felt calm. She was amazed to find that she could now think about work without that feeling in her stomach. She continued to feel better and when she went back to work was able to see and respond to the bully differently.
How does EMDR work?
If you are involved in a distressing event, you may feel overwhelmed and your brain may be unable to process what has happened. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level. When you recall that memory, you can re-experience what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes the memories are so distressing, that the person affected tries to avoid thinking about the event to avoid experiencing the disturbing feelings.
The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the brain's frozen or blocked information processing system. This may be by helping to connect the cognitive/thinking areas of the brain with the more primitive emotional/feeling aareas. AS this processing takes place, the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity, so that they are less disturbing and seem more like 'ordinary' memories. The effect is believed to be similiar 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.