What Is EMDR Therapy?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a revolutionary form of therapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress caused by traumatic life experiences.

It’s widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR therapy shows that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma and distress much like the body recovers from physical trauma.

When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes.

A Bit of Background…

EMDR therapy was first introduced in 1989 as an innovative treatment intervention for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). Its originator was the American Psychologist Francine Shapiro. Having experienced great trauma in her own life, including cancer and the death of a younger sibling, Dr Shapiro was interested in the links between the physiological and the psychological that contribute towards our overall physical health.

The research idea that would eventually lead to the development of EDMR was the result of a chance observation:

‘One day whilst out walking I noticed some disturbing thoughts in my mind, but also noticed that my eyes were rapidly moving spontaneously back and forth in an upward diagonal. The thoughts disappeared – and yet when I brought them back into my mind their negative charge had greatly reduced.’

Fascinated by this discovery, Dr Shapiro went on to test her hypothesis on over 70 veterans of the Vietnam War. The protocol she created to decrease anxiety became known as Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMD). Following the evaluation of hundreds of further cases, Dr Shapiro noticed her approach was not only reducing anxiety but was also helping to change thoughts and the personal meaning of trauma memories. The approach was subsequently renamed Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR).

Over 30 years later, EMDR Therapy is truly a global trauma treatment, playing a part in humanitarian crises, war zones, disasters areas and conflict zones. In the UK, it’s recognised and recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of trauma and it’s routinely used within the NHS and psychological services.

Tragically, Dr Shapiro died a few years ago. Having gifted the world an effective treatment for trauma, her work will continue to transform countless lives.

How Does EMDR Work?

Normally, people process traumatic experiences naturally. Sometimes an overwhelming event or repeated distress can cause this healing process to become overloaded, leaving the original disturbing experiences unprocessed. These unprocessed memories can be stored in the brain in a ‘raw’ form and continually re-evoked when experiencing similar events.

EMDR uses a range of techniques and eye movements to help process the disturbing memories. It’s a bit like inducing rapid eye movement sleep, but during the day. You’re always conscious during treatment and can stop at any time.

This approach utilises the body’s natural healing ability and allows the brain to recover from psychological problems at the same rate as the rest of the body heals physical ailments. Because EMDR allows the mind and body to heal at the same rate, treatment can be rapid.

The number of sessions required for EMDR treatment will vary according to the complexity of the issues being dealt with. In general, the more isolated the traumatic memory being treated, the shorter the treatment tends to be.

Who Can Benefit from EMDR Therapy?

EMDR can be beneficial in a wide range of circumstances including:

  • Bereavement, grief and loss
  • Traumatic relationships or break-ups
  • Self-esteem or confidence
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Abuse of any nature
  • Accidents, armed forces incidents, fires or domestic accidents such as falls
  • Assaults or robberies.

– Bullying, phobias, witnessing a difficult incident and any situation where you fear for your own or someone else’s safety

People who are struggling with trauma will often say it feels like it only happened yesterday when the difficulty happened a long time ago. They feel like something is blocked and although they’re ready to move on, the memory is too present and affecting their day-to-day life in some way. The types of symptoms associated with trauma are:

– Flashbacks to the event or an image

– Nightmares, poor sleep, memory and concentration difficulties

– Anxiety and a sense of always having to be alert

– Low mood and avoidance of reminders

– Worry and rumination, a sense of trying to work it out.

These symptoms can have a significant impact on your daily life, but they are treatable.

Useful Links

EMDR – More information

Video – Russel Brand and Jameela Jamil – Can EMDR Remove Fear and Shame?


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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.