What is EMDR Therapy?

This updated definition of EMDR Therapy is from the EMDR International Association (Laliotis et al., 2021):

“EMDR therapy is an integrative, client-centered approach that treats problems of daily living based on disturbing life experiences that continue to have a negative impact on a person throughout the lifespan. Its Adaptive Information Processing theory hypothesizes that current difficulties are caused by disturbing memories that are inadequately processed, and that symptoms are reduced or eliminated altogether when these memories are processed to resolution using dual attention bilateral stimulation. The resolution of these targeted memories is hypothesized to result in memory reconsolidation. The standard application of EMDR therapy is comprised of eight phases and a three-pronged approach to identify and process: (a) Memories of past adverse life experiences that underlie present problems; (b) Present-day situations that elicit disturbance and maladaptive responses; and (c) Anticipatory future scenarios that require adaptive responses. There is strong empirical evidence for its use in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder, and it has also been found to be an effective, transdiagnostic treatment approach for a wide range of diagnoses in a variety of contexts and treatment settings with diverse populations.”

The EMDR Association of the UK and Ireland states, “EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It is a unique, powerful therapy that helps people recover from problems triggered by traumatic events in their lives. It stops difficult memories causing so much distress by helping the brain to reprocess them properly.

EMDR is best known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it can also help with a range of mental health conditions in people of all ages.”

EMDR is recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which also recognises it as an effective treatment for children.

EMDR Therapy is recommended by the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) for the treatment of children and adolescents with clinically relevant post-traumatic stress symptoms. The ISTSS also recommends EMDR Therapy in the treatment of adults with symptoms of PTSD both in the first three months after a traumatic event and later.

A brief explanation of EMDR Therapy

We can usually remember a past event whenever we wish. That is because the feelings we had during the event; our emotions, what we saw, what our bodies felt, what we smelled or tasted or heard at the time, are ‘processed’ by our brains and filed away as a memory of that event, so that we can revisit it whenever we want to think about it.

When something upsetting or traumatic happens, our brain can be overwhelmed, and cannot process the memory in the same way. All those distressing feelings, along with our body’s sensations; what we saw, smelled, or heard are not filed away; they become stuck. As these memories are not filed away, new events or even small reminders like a smell or a sound, can ‘trigger’ the original memory. This can cause us to re-experience some or all the emotions, sensations, and distress that we felt in the original event, over and over again, often without us even realising that this is what is happening, and that this is the cause of our distress.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR Therapy seems to work in a variety of ways to help our brains reprocess these ‘stuck’ memories, so that they can be filed away like normal memories and not continue to cause us distress.

By thinking of the event and then using side-to-side eye movements, like in REM sleep, or other movements, sounds, or sensations, guided by the EMDR therapist, our brains are enabled to reprocess the memory. This reduces the distress the memory causes and ultimately allows us to remember it just as ‘something that happened a long time ago’; something that we can choose to remember when we want to, but which neither disturbs nor distresses us at other times.

For children, activities such as play, running, drumming, drawing pictures, or listening to a story of the event whilst doing another activity, might be incorporated into therapy.

EMDR will not take the memory away. You will always know what happened. The aim is to reduce the distress from the memory and to enable you to think about it only when you choose to do so, without constantly being reminded of it, so that you can move on in life and not be held back by it.

EMDR Therapy sessions may be longer than the more usual 1 hour sessions. 90 minutes or 2 hours would not be unusual. Longer sessions for more intensive work may be arranged.

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