Ask the expert: What is EMDR?

If you’ve decided to seek mental health support, it can be helpful to do some research around what type of therapy could be helpful for you. One therapy type that you might have heard about is EMDR, but what exactly is it, and is it the right approach for you?

Here counsellor and psychotherapist Dr Anupama Garg explains what EMDR is and how it can help.


Can you explain what ‘EMDR’ stands for and what it is?

Discovered by psychologist Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of the most effective psychotherapeutic approaches for easing distress associated with traumatic memories. These memories can be associated with any big or small trauma or adverse life experience. 

The EMDR process allows therapists to access and reorganise negative memories associated with traumatic events by discarding and deadening the impact of certain memories and connecting others with more helpful and adaptive information. As a result, clients feel more settled with the traumatic events. Sounds that triggered them before no longer do, and their negative beliefs about themselves become either neutral or positive. These changes, in turn, improve clients’ psychological health.

What can EMDR help with?

EMDR is recommended for any mental health condition where the origins can be related to traumatic life events. Unprocessed traumatic memories lead to symptoms like flashbacks, phobias, anxiety and panic attacks, low mood, inability to sleep, over and under-eating, social withdrawal, negative self-belief and suicidal thoughts.

These symptoms are part of recognised mental health conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex PTSD, acute stress disorder, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and complicated grief. Therefore, EMDR can be helpful and recommended for all these conditions.  

Controlled outcome studies show that 84-90% of single trauma victims no longer have PTSD after three 90-minute EMDR sessions, which is a much shorter time frame than other therapies. But, of course, the length of EMDR treatment could be longer if you have suffered multiple traumas at a young age.  

What should I expect from an EMDR session?

EMDR is a structured therapy spread over eight phases, so what will happen during a session will depend on the treatment phase. The initial sessions involve the therapist taking your history and consent for EMDR, determining your needs, and teaching techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and creating a calm place to build your capacity to handle intense emotions. The latter sessions involve the desensitisation of individual trauma memories and are unique to EMDR.

In a desensitisation session, you will be asked to bring up a trauma memory and its associated most distressing image, a negative belief about yourself and a desirable neutral/positive belief, and body sensations. This fires up your trauma memory networks which, by the addition of bilateral stimuli (BLS e.g. the eye movements) and tapping on your knees under the direction of the therapist, facilitates the release and processing of traumatic memories. Ultimately, your traumatic memory is resolved by connecting with more adaptive information and memories. 

Can I have EMDR online?

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, online EMDR has become the norm. EMDR therapists’ professional associations have promoted it by publishing guidelines and providing training on it to ensure and improve our proficiency in it. So, yes, you can have online EMDR safely. 

It is offered over a range of video-calling methods such as Skype and Zoom. Therefore, if you have a reliable internet connection with a private space at home to work without being disturbed, you can have successful EMDR online. 

In online EMDR, your therapist may use specialist software for BLS or demonstrate other ways of BLS e.g. butterfly taps on the shoulders.

Research on the effectiveness of online EMDR is ongoing, however, as an experienced online EMDR therapist, I can say that all of my clients have found it easy to receive from their homes and psychologically beneficial. 

How will I know if EMDR is the right approach for me?

If you have had a trauma or multiple traumas and are experiencing flashbacks, have phobias or panic attacks etc. (particularly where other therapeutic approaches have not particularly helped), I would recommend considering EMDR and contacting an EMDR therapist to be assessed.

After taking your trauma history, understanding your symptoms and doing psychological assessments, your EMDR therapist should be able to give you an idea about whether and how EMDR may help you. Although, the ultimate question of EMDR’s appropriateness for you can only be answered by you trying it – so go for it. 

After a few desensitisation sessions, though they may be emotionally hard for you, you should be able to notice improvements such as reduced reactivity to the memory and improved sleep; and that’s how most of my clients decide on whether EMDR is the right approach for them or not.

Top three tips for people thinking about trying EMDR

  1. If you have experienced minor and/or major trauma and are experiencing flashbacks, can’t sleep, suffer from anxiety and panic attacks, or have phobias, EMDR is likely to benefit you.
  1. If you have tried other therapies but you haven’t seen much improvement, you should read one or two articles on EMDR to assure yourself of its effectiveness, and to assess its suitability for you (see emdr.com for more information). 
  1. If, after this initial exploration, you feel EMDR is for you, go to EMDR therapists’ professional associations’ websites and therapists’ directories to access the list of accredited therapists and their profiles. It is advisable to choose a couple of therapists for an initial assessment based on their qualifications, experience and availability. Get an assessment by your chosen therapists to find whether and how EMDR could help you, finalise your therapist, and you’re ready to try EMDR. 

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (October 2021). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

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Written by Katherine Nicholls

Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Counselling Directory and Happiful magazine.

Written by Katherine Nicholls

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