How does EMDR work and who for?
Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing is a psychotherapy which was initiated by Francine Shapiro in 1987.She noticed her eye movements made events she was thinking of less distressing, and subsequently began research to study this, and EMDR evolved from here. Clinical studies have since demonstrated the efficacy of the therapy in reducing distress and the effects of trauma. NICE and The WHO both recommend EMDR as an effective treatment for trauma.
EMDR uses therapy to build a relationship with the individual attending, to explore the person’s history, ways they currently cope or do not with strong emotions, sensory or other experiences.
The reprocessing uses eye movements, buzzers, tapping or sounds and combines with interventions from the therapist, to support greater regulation of emotions, and to move towards a more adaptive position related to the target experience. In essence, help is given to cope with overwhelming big events, and feelings and the person can learn to use these coping strategies independently. The event reprocessed becomes less charged, less intrusive and part of memory rather than something to be feared or avoided.
Research is ongoing as to exactly why EMDR works so effectively. Vivid dreams are often the mind’s attempt to heal trauma, but disturbance of eye movements through awakening, disrupts completion of this process. Using guided eye movements to reprocess the trauma in EMDR can allow the process to complete. The event then becomes integrated into the memory.
Some theory supports the idea that connections across the part of the brain responsible for memory, with the stimulation of the hemispheres causing reprocessing is likely. Others focus on the idea of dual attention on the inner feelings, or experience, and the external stimulus (tapping or eye movements) as the main agent of change.
Disruption of the traumatic memory which is stored without context - so with our usual memories we store them with a context of links, or they are forgotten, but with trauma, many details are seared into our consciousness, which are recalled when triggered (flashbacks) and the memory is not filed in the same way. Disrupting this memory through reprocessing and allowing the mind to reclassify, can allow the event to change the way it arises or is experienced.
EMDR can help if you have experienced a single incident trauma such as an accident, but can also help you to work on multiple experiences of an adverse nature. For example if you experienced neglect, abuse or similar as a child you may have responses to stressors, similar to PTSD, as your capacity to cope has been affected. Experiencing multiple incidents as an adult may also impact your ability to function and live well, as startling, anxiety, poor sleep, and images, thoughts or beliefs about yourself may intrude.
EMDR can support you to reprocess these experiences, to move between stability and safety to dip into the painful, distressing material and to re-emerge. The process continues outside of sessions, so there is a value in adopting coping strategies to practise and use at times when experiences are a struggle. EMDR is a remarkable, creative and powerful therapy.
If you would like to know more, find an accredited therapist on the EMDR Association website.