Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

For some people, when something traumatic has happened to them, the memory of their experience comes crashing back into their mind, forcing them to relive the event with the same intensity of feeling – like it’s taking place in the present moment. These experiences may present as 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. Here, they can be accessed when something in everyday life 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.

Very few relationships exist conflict free – whether it’s the odd disagreement or ‘bicker’, repeatedly arguing or you’ve lost the fun element in your relationship – it’s natural to start to question its longevity. When this (one of our most important relationships) begins to falter, our health and happiness can also suffer. For many of us, our first instinct is to try and work through the problems alone, but it can be incredibly helpful to seek outside support, whether that be through friends and family, or even a professional.

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. While walking in a 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. After further study and experimentation, EMDR was developed. 

EMDR therapy is increasingly being recommended for other issues too, including:

  • depression
  • phobias and fears
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem

The aims of EMDR therapy

Of course, we are all different, and so what works for one person may not work for another. However, the common aims of EMDR therapy include:

  • Reduce re-experiencing trauma memories.
  • Help you feel more able to cope with and manage trauma memories without needing to avoid potential triggers.
  • Help you feel more able to engage in and enjoy pleasurable activities and relationships.
  • Reduce 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.
  • Reduce feelings of isolation, hopelessness and depression.
  • Boost self-confidence and self-esteem.

How does EMDR work?

When traumatic events happen, the body’s natural coping mechanisms can be overwhelmed and subsequently, the memory isn’t always processed adequately. 

EMDR therapy looks to help you properly process these traumatic memories, reducing their impact and helping you develop healthy coping mechanisms. This is done through an eight-phase approach to address the past, present, and future aspects of a stored memory. This involves recalling distressing events while receiving ‘bilateral sensory input’, including side to side eye movements, hand tapping and auditory tones.

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. 

Today, the therapy is recommended by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A video explaining how EMDR works & how it can help: