Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
If something traumatic has happened to you (whether it be a car accident, abuse or something seemingly less significant like being humiliated), the memory of your experience may come crashing back into your mind, forcing you to relive the original event with the same intensity of feeling - like it is taking place in the present moment.
These experiences that pop into your awareness may present themselves as either flashbacks or nightmares, and are thought to occur because the mind was simply too overwhelmed during the event to process what was going on.
As a result, these unprocessed memories and the accompanying sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings are stored in the brain in 'raw' form, where they can be accessed each time we experience something that triggers a recollection of the original event.
While it isn't possible to erase these memories, the process of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) can alter the way these traumatic memories are stored within the brain - making them easier to manage and causing you less distress.
On this page
- What is EMDR?
- How does EMDR work?
- What can I expect from an EMDR therapy session?
- How will I feel after my session?
What is EMDR?
Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (more commonly known as EMDR), is a form of psychotherapy developed in the 1980s by American psychologist Francine Shapiro.
During a stroll in the park, Shapiro made a chance observation that certain eye movements appeared to reduce the negative emotion associated with her own traumatic memories. When she experimented, she found that others also exhibited a similar response to eye movements, and so she set about conducting controlled studies before developing a multiphase approach to trauma reduction.
Today, the therapy is used to treat a wide range of psychological difficulties that typically originate in trauma, such as direct or indirect experiences of violence, accidents or natural disaster. EMDR therapy is also used to treat more prolonged, low-grade distress that originates in shock or loss in adult life and/or issues experienced during childhood. The experiences outlined above often lead to a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, for which EMDR has been recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Increasingly, EMDR therapy is also being used for the treatment of other issues including:
- performance anxiety
- phobias and fears
- low self-esteem.
Reported benefits of EMDR include:
- A reduction in re-experiencing trauma memories.
- Feeling more able to cope with and manage trauma memories without needing to avoid potential triggers.
- Feeling more able to engage in and enjoy pleasurable activities and relationships.
- Reduced feelings of stress, anxiety, irritation and hypervigilance - allowing you to rest well, address pressure and/or conflict and go about your daily business without feeling fearful and prone to panic.
- Reduced feelings of isolation, hopelessness and depression.
- A boost in self-confidence and self-esteem.
How does EMDR work?
When traumatic events occur, the body's natural cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms can be overwhelmed and subsequently the memory is inadequately processed and stored in an isolated network.
The goal of EMDR therapy is to properly process these traumatic memories, reducing their impact and helping clients to develop coping mechanisms. This is done through an eight-phase approach to address the past, present, and future aspects of a stored memory, requiring clients to recall distressing events while receiving bilateral sensory input, including:
- side to side eye movements
- hand tapping
- auditory tones.
What can I expect from an EMDR therapy session?
The goal of EMDR is to reduce distress in the shortest period of time using a comprehensive approach with therapeutic protocols and procedures. There are eight phases to EMDR therapy which typically adhere to the following format:
During the initial phase your EMDR therapist will ask you about your history, including what kind of distress you are experiencing, whether or not you are taking any medication and what kind of support you are already receiving. Getting to know you in this way will help your therapist determine whether or not EMDR is the best course of action for you.
Before EMDR treatment begins, your therapist will talk you through the theory, answering any questions you may have. At this point your therapist will spend some time going through relaxation exercises (these may include guided meditations or breathing techniques) to utilise during the treatment and during times of stress outside of your sessions. Therapists refer to this second phase as preparation.
At this point you will be led through phases three to six. You will now target specific distressing memories with eye movements or other forms of left-right stimulation such as taps or sounds. To start with you will be asked to select an image to represent the event and then to think about positive and negative thoughts, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body. Your therapist will then use bilateral eye movements (or taps or sounds) in a series of 'sets' lasting around 25 seconds. After each set, you will be asked for feedback on your experience during the preceding set, before starting the eye movements again. Your therapist may also ask you to recall the orginal memory and ask you how it seems to you now. This will continue until your distress has cleared (or is reduced as much as possible) and you are experiencing more positive thoughts and feelings.
The seventh phase is known as closure and it offers you time to feel calm again using the relaxation exercises you learnt at the beginning of the session. Finally, the eighth phase is called re-evaluation - and this is effectively the first step in your next session. This phase will see you and your therapist working together to consider how you are coping and whether or not you need to address the same memory as last time or if you are able to move on to something different.
How will I feel after my session?
The nature of EMDR means that after your session the treatment will continue to be active in your awareness. This means that you may find yourself thinking about the thoughts you focused on during your session and you may feel the same emotions you experienced during your session. To help you through this process, allow yourself time and space to relax after an EMDR session and utilise the relaxation techniques you have learnt. Be sure to discuss your feelings with your therapist in your next session. While everyone is different, over time these feelings will generally become less intense and many people say they feel a strong sense of relief after their sessions.
Is EMDR a kind of hypnosis?
EMDR is not considered a form of hypnosis. You will remain fully conscious and aware at all times during your session and you will have total control over what is happening. If at any point you feel uncomfortable or unable to continue - simply make your therapist aware.
How do I know my therapist is qualified to use EMDR?
As it stands there are no official laws in position that stipulate the level of training and experience required to practice EMDR therapy. However, industry benchmarks and professional bodies recommend that practitioners should be trained mental health professionals who have undertaken further training in EMDR.
When visiting an EMDR therapist for the first time, we would always advise that you ask to see a copy of their qualifications and insurance, before you commit to a session.
- EMDR Association UK and Ireland - A professional association of EMDR clinicians and researchers.
You may also be interested in
What our experts say
- EMDR and medically unexplained symptoms
Angela Collinge11th May, 2018
- Treating depression with talking therapy
David Peak16th January, 2017
- Depression - how do you recognise it? How is it caused and how to get help?
David Peak16th January, 2017
- Letting go of the past
Fe Robinson UKCP, MBACP28th November, 2016
- The talking therapies - how to choose the right one
Sarah Dean17th October, 2016