EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, was developed in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro. Whilst on a walk, she realised that moving her eyes backwards and forwards helped her whilst thinking about traumatic memories. By 1990, Shapiro had established the EMDR Institute, and today you will find EMDR practiced around the world.
EMDR for PTSD
When you hold onto trauma and cannot process it, for example with cases of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), you are stuck in a state of hyper-vigilance and waiting for the next threat or attack. EMDR allows you to move on from that hyper-vigilant state of fight or flight. It doesn’t ask you to forget what happened, but simply to take the useful parts of that experience and discard the physical reactions and beliefs that have become ingrained ever since – for example, fast breathing, sweating and a raised heart rate triggered by certain noises, smells or places that remind you of the trauma.
Many people assume PTSD only occurs in high-profile and universally threatening situations, such as a terror attack, natural disaster, war, abuse or rape. In reality, PTSD can occur in everyday incidents, like robbery, persistent workplace bullying, or complicated childbirth.
Why Does Rapid Eye Movement Help With Trauma?
By stimulating rapid eye movement from side to side, an EMDR therapist is able to mimic the rapid eye movement that happens when we are asleep and our brains process the day’s events. Instead of reflecting on recent events during the eye movement, patients are asked to recall their traumatic experiences. They don’t always have to talk in great detail for EMDR to work.
Rapid eye movement action helps to process those painful memories. It forces the brain to multi-task across its two very different sections, in a process known as bilateral stimulation. Following movement uses the logical and linear left hemisphere of the brain, whilst drawing on memories uses the right hemisphere, which deals with language, intuition and emotions.
What an EMDR Session Involves
Depending on their ‘movement’ of choice, the therapist might move their finger, deliver sounds through headphones that switch between the left and right ear, or tap the patient’s knee. You’ll notice the therapist sits much closer to the patient than in other therapy sessions, such as CBT; this may take some getting used to. However, like any other type of therapy, each session takes place in a safe environment and at a manageable pace, with the ability to stop at any time during the session.
You will have an individual treatment plan for EMDR, created during the preparation phase. Part of your treatment is to uncover the negative core beliefs you hold as a result of your trauma and the target events (when it happened): for example, that you are unsafe, worthless or bad. Uncovering core beliefs is also common with other types of therapy, like CBT. You will create a positive cognition that more accurately reflects you as a person right now, like ‘I am safe’ or ‘I am a good person’, and rank it on a scale of 1-7, known as VOC (Validity of Cognition), to demonstrate how much you believe in that statement.
Learning to Desensitise in EMDR
You also need to recall the sensations and main emotions associated with your trauma and measure them on a scale of disturbance from 0-10, known as SUD (Subjective Units of Disturbance), to demonstrate how much they affect you. The EMDR aims to get your SUD score to something between 0 (no disturbance) and 2. You may uncover new details about the trauma that had been buried in your mind; this is very normal.
Towards the end of the session, the therapist will complete a body scan, asking you to identify physical tension or sensations in your body at that moment. Coping techniques are also part of recovery, as these teach you to relax in potentially triggering situations. Your therapist will develop individual relaxation techniques with you, that can be used outside the session.
Some patients and their friends and family may be sceptical about EMDR because it doesn’t sound like a traditional talking therapy, and the connection between eye movement and trauma processing may seem strange at first. However, EMDR is recognised by the World Health Organisation as a treatment for PTSD and to process trauma, because the evidence suggests it works for both children and adults, providing a positive outcome for the patient. You can find examples of clinical EMDR studies here.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk), and EMDR is one of the therapies offered by her team.