What is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)?
27th March, 2009
EMDR is a recently developed therapy. It has proved to be effective in easing the kinds of suffering associated with severely debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), and the less severe but also distressing manifestations of anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, anger and more.
You might not have heard of EMDR but you have probably heard of REM sleep – rapid eye movement sleep. The alternating eye movements used in EMDR therapy are thought to be directly related to the REM sleep state.
Researchers suggest that the effectiveness of EMDR may parallel the way REM sleep is believed to help us process the events and experiences of our days. The theory goes that during REM sleep our brains process and store in our narrative memory information taken in through all our senses during the day. If, however, we live through a traumatic event, the information we take in (sights, sounds, smells, physical and emotional experiences, etc.) becomes ‘frozen’ in certain neural networks. As such, it is not accessible to the parts of our brains which can successfully process and incorporate it into our narrative memory; even our REM sleep is disrupted. Subsequently, a certain smell, a specific type of touch, a sound or a dream can re-ignite the trauma and it is relived as if it were actually happening again in the present, which in turn reinforces the original traumatic experience. The alternating eye movements in EMDR therapy are believed to stimulate our brains’ information processing activities so that the persistent, intense physical and emotional shock-waves following traumatic experiences are alleviated. The therapy breaks into, and unlocks, the cycle of re-ignition each time a trigger experience occurs.
Putting aside theories, EMDR has been shown to be very effective for a wide range of debilitating concerns. People who have been helped include those who have experienced life-threatening situations such as war veterans, rape survivors, survivors of childhood physical, emotional and sexual abuse or neglect, those who have lived through serious accidents or attacks at work or on the road or rail networks, survivors of bombings or terrorist attacks.
Increasingly, EMDR is also helping people who have had experiences which were not life threatening but which challenged their sense of personal identity or their view of the world and their place in it. The day-to-day manifestations of such experiences may include, for example, panic attacks or phobias, consistently negative opinions of oneself, unpredictable anger, alcohol dependency, depression, and much more. Often, at the outset of therapy it is not necessarily remembered or obvious what the contributory experience(s) were. As the work progresses, though, the impact of, for example, hostile comments or behaviours from authority figures is revealed to have been much greater and longer-lasting than was first thought.
EMDR can have significant benefits in a relatively short time. It can help people finally to move beyond their trauma so that it no longer defines who they are. Then they are freed to live the present and face the future without the emotional and behavioural burdens that have weighed them down for years or even decades.
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