Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy
What is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)?
EMDR therapy was developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980’s following the chance discovery by her that if she moved her eyes rapidly back and forth while thinking a disturbing thought, the emotional charge related to the thought went away and it wasn’t disturbing any more.
Our brain is understood to have a natural healing mechanism for processing and resolving disturbing life experiences. We think about it, talk about, dream about it and in time we are able to let go of the thoughts and images. Our memories of the event shape our perception and behaviour such that we learn from the experience in a helpful way, the memory gets connected to other events in our life and we can create a story of it in the context of our life –
“this event happened but it’s over now. I learnt these things from it and I can use this helpfully in my life“.
Why Choose EMDR?
Sometimes the event or events that happen to us overwhelm our innate ability to resolve a disturbing experience. This might be because of the nature of the event (an earthquake, a car accident, being assaulted) or because of the age at which it happens to us, for example when we are a child or the repeated, or perhaps the persistent nature of the experience for example repeated racial abuse.
It can be helpful to think of big “T” trauma and little “t” trauma.
- Big T traumas are those events that lead a person to believe that their life is at risk.
- the little t traumas are those disturbing events such as emotional abuse, divorce, loss, living in a house where there is constant conflict, and discrimination.
You might find it interesting to read some more about the impact of childhood adversity on health and wellbeing.
When disturbing events overwhelm our brain’s ability to resolve them, it is as if our memory of the event becomes stuck or frozen and is unable to be stored adaptively. Instead it is stored in isolation from our general memory networks and in such a way that all the emotional and physical disturbance associated with the event continues to be experienced.
Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) seeks to use the brain’s natural healing capacity to defrost these memories and allow them to link up with the adaptive memory networks so that we can learn what we need, discard the rest and not be stuck in the past.
EMDR therapy is a validated treatment for PTSD but people can be affected by all sorts of disturbing life events (small “t” trauma) that are continuing to unhelpfully shape their perceptions and behaviour. This means you don’t have to be diagnosed with PTSD to find it useful.
Generally EMDR is understood to be therapy that can help resolve difficulties more quickly than traditional talking therapies.
If someone is seeking help to resolve distress from a single event and they have good psychological resources and helpful ways to manage distress then it may take only 2 or 3 sessions for them to get what they need. But if a person has a more complex history, has experienced repeated traumas and struggles to find ways to manage distressing emotions then it is unlikely to be a fast process. As with any trauma focussed therapy the key principles are to focus first on stabilising a person which means helping them to build the skills to manage their emotions and in doing so enlarge their window of tolerance for stress and distress.
One of the things I’ve found particularly helpful about EMDR therapy is its attention to the body and its experience of trauma; how the body can hold and respond to memories outside of our awareness and that the body’s response is ‘normal’. It is just our body and brain responding to traumatic stress in an effort to protect us. You might like to explore Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory as a way to think about this.
Here is an information sheet about EMDR therapy that I often give people and here is a video and some written information produced by the EMDR International Association that introduces the therapy and its uses.
For a personal experience of EMDR therapy you might like to watch these: