Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing is a deep, transformative, embodied psychotherapy approach. It’s a recommended treatment for Post Traumatic Stress, but also effective with anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, complex grieving and some attachment issues.
What is EMDR?
EMDR for Post Traumatic Stress
EMDR is used widely within the NHS, and beyond, as an effective way of working with Post Traumatic Stress. The initials EMDR stand for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. Using eye movements or other side to side movements such as alternate tapping on the legs, distressing experiences from the past can begin to feel less terrible, making space for living your life more fully. It’s also been shown to be effective for anxiety, panic attacks, phobias, complex grieving and many past issues causing problems in the present, such as abuse, neglect, loneliness, bullying etc.
The underlying idea of EMDR therapy is that many of us have experienced difficulties in the past. These might be big traumas, or “just” a string of emotional injuries, which we might not even recall individually, but which have an accumulative, significant effect.
These can severely interfere with our ability to function and enjoy our lives in the present.
The Brain's healing power
EMDR therapy uses 40 years’ worth of research and the brain’s own innate healing power to bring about freedom from anxiety and fear, replacing those emotions with realistic and personal positive images, emotions and thoughts.
EMDR makes it possible to gain greater self-knowledge and a new perspective, enabling the person to regain their natural state of emotional functioning, a greater sense of personal power, and a more peaceful life.
- Trauma (severe accidents, having been attacked physically/verbally)
- Phobias (e.g. fear of flying, spiders, mice etc.)
- Attachment Issues (childhood problems like bullying, neglect or abuse, leading to difficulties in current relationships)
- Fear of success/performance enhancement
- Anxiety and panic
In a nutshell, traumatic and distressing memories are stored in the part of our brain which deals with survival under threat and which produces our natural fight, flight and freeze responses. The amygdala (the part of the brain that deals with emergencies) becomes almost permanently switched on. The connection with the hippocampus (dealing with memory) is affected, which can lead us to think and feel as if the traumatic memories are happening now – that is why panic attacks can happen when a sufferer is presented with a trigger. EMDR therapy seeks to reprocess the traumatic memories in a contained and safe way.
The Eye Movement part of the work brings about a process similar to that occurring in REM sleep which will allow the fragments of memory to move from the survival based part of the brain to the more adaptive thinking part of the brain.
You will be awake and fully conscious at all times and while you engage with the difficult memories, you remain fully present in the here and now, in a safe, warm and encouraging environment, securely supported by your therapist. This means you will not be retraumatised, but can process these events in a safe and contained way.
In the first few sessions we’ll do some work to enable you to find a good space in yourself so that you have a place to return to that can help you settle. We will also work on identifying your resources and developing others. We then draw up a timeline of the things that you want to work on and events in your life that have had an impact on you. This helps us assess together what you want to work on and the most useful starting point. After that, the experience is radically different from traditional talking therapy.
We’ll agree on a starting point, either from your timeline or linking back to the past from something that’s been distressing you in the week and then I’ll guide you to do short sets of eye movements or self tapping. I’ll invite you to just let whatever comes, come up with no judgement or censorship and no need to describe it all to me. You can stay quiet during this part which means there is far less talking than is usual in therapy and a lot more options for privacy.
I’ll get you to pause every so often and ask for brief feedback on where you’ve got to. I won’t analyse or interpret this, but will keep things moving by keeping on going with the short sets of eye movements or tapping. Between each set we make sure you remain present in the here and now, and, while there might be a lot of emotion coming up, my job is to ensure that you feel safe and supported so that you can process and move through the emotions and memories. Emotions, body sensations, sights, sounds, fragments of memories may all come up as part of the processing – this is natural and a good sign that everything is being made available to be processed and remembered but in a more neutral way.
Sessions may sometimes take longer than usual talking therapy, but we would plan for that if necessary. I’ll ask you to keep a note of anything that’s come up between sessions, so that we can check together what else might need attention and how you have been feeling.
Generally, EMDR therapy processes even complex and long-standing issues very quickly, so that we might look at 6 – 15 sessions for an issue (sometimes less, sometimes more, if one trauma connects to a number of others, which also need to be processed). Of course, there may be many intertwined issues which might need a slower approach to ensure that all of your parts have a chance to be known and to become part of the changes you wish to make.
Research shows that one of the powerful aspects of EMDR therapy is that it enables us to access positive images, emotions and thoughts. It makes it possible for us to gain greater self-knowledge and a new perspective, freeing people to regain their natural state of emotional functioning, a greater sense of personal power, and a more peaceful life.
In order to give yourself the best possible chances of healing through EMDR, it’s advisable to have weekly sessions to keep the processing moving and therefore effective.
Both EMDR therapy and Focusing offer a safe way of processing difficult, bodily held emotions and experiences, changing how we feel about what has happened to us and how we feel about ourselves in a positive way.