Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, usually known as EMDR, is a powerful psychotherapy technique which has been successful in helping people who suffer from trauma, anxiety, panic, disturbing memories, post-traumatic stress and other emotional problems. EMDR can be a rapid type of therapy, which can provide lasting relief, and is one of the treatments of choice for PTSD in the NICE guidelines (2005).

When would we suggest EMDR for you?

After a distressing or traumatic event, you may feel overwhelmed, which may lead to your memory network becoming “stuck” or “frozen” on a neurological level. This can mean that when you recall the event or situation, you can feel as if you are re-experiencing what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted or felt, and these sensations can be very intense. Sometimes people will do anything to avoid experiencing the painful memory, sometimes people are reminded or “triggered” by something into remembering, and sometimes people are subjected to involuntary intrusive thoughts, in “flashbacks” or dreams. If any of these symptoms persist, they can cause significant emotional distress for you.

What are the symptoms often helped by EMDR?

  • High anxiety and lack of motivation
  • Memories of a traumatic experience
  • Fear of being alone
  • Unrealistic feelings of guilt and shame
  • Poor and disrupted sleep
  • Difficulty in trusting others
  • Relationship problems

How does EMDR work?

The psychotherapist will ask you to revisit the traumatic moment or incident, recalling feelings surrounding the experience, as well as any negative thoughts, feelings and memories. This will be a gentle process and done in a manageable way for you: you will go at your own pace.

The therapist then holds their fingers or hand, depending on your preference, about eighteen inches from your face and begins to move them back and forth like a windscreen wiper. You track the movements as if watching ping pong. The more intensely you focus on the memory, the easier it becomes for the memory to come to life. As quick and vibrant images arise during the therapy session, processed by the eye movements, painful feelings become replaced by peaceful, loving and resolved feelings. Other psychotherapists use bi-lateral stimulation such as tapping on alternate hands.

In the process the distressing memories lose their intensity, so that the memories are less disturbing and seem more like “ordinary” memories. The effect is like what occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side. EMDR helps reduce the distress of memories, whether it was what you saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt or thought.

EMDR therapy can help clients replace their anxiety and fear with positive images, emotions and thoughts.

What can I expect from my EMDR sessions?

EMDR is more than just the eye movements. It is a comprehensive therapeutic approach involving principles, protocols and procedures with the goal of reducing distress in the shortest amount of time. Your psychotherapist will spend time getting to know you and your history, both generally and about the traumatic event(s) itself. You are welcome to ask any questions you may have about your treatment.

Your psychotherapist will also spend time doing breathing and grounding exercises with you, and a guided visualisation called “a safe or pleasant place.” This will prepare you for the processing of the traumatic event, and you will practice these exercises regularly.

You will select an image that represents the distressing event and then think about negative and positive thoughts, your feelings, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body. The therapist will then begin the eye movements while you hold the image in mind. After each set of eye movements, you can say what came to mind or what you noticed during the eye movements. During the eye movements you may experience the distressing event quite intensely to start with, but this distress will reduce as the EMDR processes the memory.

Your therapist will continue with the eye movements until your distress reduces as much as possible. Your therapist will then ask you to think about your positive thoughts and check whether there is any part of your body where you still feel distress. Before the end of the session, your therapist will give you time to feel calm again, using the safe-pleasant place exercise or relaxation techniques.

EMDR is not a form of hypnotism

You will always remain conscious and in control.

What to expect after your session of EMDR

Clients are often tired after an EMDR session. It is good to rest after a session, if possible.

The processing may or may not continue after the session. If new insights, thoughts, memories and dreams occur, you can make notes of them and bring them to your next session.

You can use your relaxation exercise daily during your course of EMDR.

Clients often feel better very quickly and experience a reduction in their troubling post-traumatic symptoms.