What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, a psychological therapy originally developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  EMDR was developed by an American clinical psychologist, Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s.  EMDR is recognised by NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence), along with trauma-focused CBT, as an empirically supported treatment for PTSD.  It is a complex treatment and should only be practised by qualified and experienced therapists.

Whilst EMDR incorporates elements similar to CBT, mindfulness and other forms of psychotherapy, it is a distinct model of psychotherapy guided by protocols and research about how we process experiences.  EMDR tends to go further than CBT and other therapies in reprocessing traumatic memories: it works on several levels, and hence processing of experiences is more complete.  Additionally, processing happens at a pace which is ecological for the individual undertaking it.  Most research comparing EMDR and CBT for PTSD shows them to be equivalent although a few studies have shown that EMDR is more effective and requires fewer sessions.

How does it work?

EMDR helps people to process traumatic memories so that the memories are no longer disturbing.  The bilateral movements in EMDR appear to help the brain to do this processing, assisting people to explore past traumas, make sense of them and decrease residual disturbance.  The aim of EMDR is to reduce the disturbance connected with traumatic memories so that people can live their lives more fully.

An EMDR treatment session typically approaches distress in the following way:

  1. We access a distressing memory that is associated with disturbance in the present, or target the disturbance and negative sense of self as it’s currently experienced
  2. We activate the disturbing memory bi-laterally using eye movements, hand taps or tones in the ears
  3. The memory moves – physically, in regard to the disturbance, and it changes in meaning away from the negative sense of self

Who can benefit from EMDR?

Research shows that EMDR is effective in treating a range of psychological traumas.  Those who have experienced combat stress, childhood abuse and neglect, natural disasters, assault, road traffic collisions and workplace accidents have all reported recovery as a result of EMDR.

EMDR is also increasingly helping people to manage other psychological difficulties.  It has been found to be of benefit to children as well as adults.

For further reading, EMDR, The Originator:

The EMDR Institute

Our UK outpost:

EMDR Association UK

Helpful video:

The Secrets of EMDR Therapy and How It Can Help You

Two New York Times articles with useful background:

The Evidence on EMDR

Expert Answers on EMDR

Deborah Korn writing in Aeon:

Rewiring your life


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