What is EMDR and how can it help?

EMDR or eye movement desensitisation reprocessing is a therapeutic approach which was founded and developed by Francine Shapiro, an American Psychologist, researcher and teacher. EMDR is a relatively new psychotherapeutic approach, but it has been practised and developed for at least 25 years.
 
Legend has it that Francine Shapiro stumbled across EMDR one day when she was walking in the woods. Shapiro noticed that as she was thinking about some difficult thoughts, her eyes were moving from side to side. Shapiro then developed her idea that moving the eyes from side to side might stimulate the memory networks, and help the mind to make a connection between stressful/traumatic memories and more positive, adaptive information. By accessing adverse memories through stimulation of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, a person could process information more effectively, thus creating more adaptive memory networks which would, in turn, lead to symptom reduction.
 
Shapiro continued to develop her ideas through research and practice. This led her to develop the EMDR therapeutic approach as it is known today. EMDR has mainly been developed for people who have experienced adverse or traumatic events. However, EMDR is now used much more widely with other presenting issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, phobias, drug dependency and relational difficulties, amongst many other problems.
 
Mental health symptoms as above can often result from adverse or traumatic past experiences. This may be linked to negative experiences during childhood or specific events such as bullying or abuse of some kind. Our bodies and minds have innate intelligence and can store emotions within our mind-body system that are linked to difficult experiences.

As humans, we have an in-built survival mechanism which is often triggered when we are under acute or prolonged stress. This is called the ‘fight-flight response’. This also affects the way our brains and bodies process information. In times of stress, the body and mind’s priority is to fight, flee or freeze. Higher cognitive processes are rendered ‘offline’ and the main purpose for the person is to survive as opposed to thriving.
 
People who have experienced PTSD can experience flashbacks to the traumatic event as if they were reliving what had happened to them. For some, it feels as though they are stuck replaying a film about what happened to them but are unable to move forward. These symptoms are often associated with low mood and anxiety. EMDR therapy supports a person to process the trauma in an adaptive way within a safe environment.

Young woman looking out to the ocean

A key part of all effective therapies involves the development of a positive therapeutic relationship. This enables a person to process traumatic events while feeling safe and secure. I believe EMDR stimulates a natural in-built mechanism, which is designed to help the body and mind recover from adversity.
 
As described, EMDR therapy supports a person to process traumatic and/or difficult memories by stimulating the right and left hemisphere (through rapid eye movements or tapping). This helps the mind to process information between the hemispheres of the brain, which then allows the brain to update and find more adaptive memory networks. It is thought that this is similar to what happens during REM sleep when the brain processes memories.

EMDR appears to stimulate a healing mechanism within the mind which helps to reduce the threat associated with the memory. This is known as desensitisation. The memory is then encoded in a more adaptive memory network, which alleviates symptoms. I like to use the metaphor of a tree to describe the process of EMDR. The tree can shed leaves and branches that are no longer useful (adverse memories) and grow new branches which leads to new leaves, blossom and then fruit (adaptive memories which leads to healthier functioning in life).
 
EMDR has been widely researched and has been shown to be an effective treatment for traumatic stress. EMDR has been shown to be comparable to trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy and has been recognised for the treatment of PTSD by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institute for Care and Health Excellence (NICE). EMDR can be used with children, teenagers and adults.
 
I have found by practising EMDR, that it can enable people to heal from negative past experiences, allowing them to find meaning in what has happened and support them towards a happier and more positive approach to life. EMDR helps to tackle the underlying problems associated with certain recurring symptoms, both mental and physical. Consequently, EMDR can lead to changes that are sustainable in the longer term.
 
This article was written by Dr Catherine Baverstock, Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Heidi Mcintosh, Assistant Psychologist.
 
References

  • Parnel, L. Attachment-focused EMDR. Healing Relational Trauma.
  • Shapiro, F. The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal. Winter 2014; 18(1): 71-77.
  • Van den Hout, M. A., & Engelhard, I. M. (2012). How does EMDR work? Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 724–738.

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Written by Dr Catherine Baverstock

I have worked in the field of mental health for 25 years and have been qualified as a Chartered Clinical Psychologist for 17 years. My specialism is treating trauma and adversity using EMDR with adults, teenagers and children. I am a holistic practitioner and I am also a qualified yoga and meditation teacher with the British Wheel of Yoga.… Read more

Written by Dr Catherine Baverstock

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