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What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, EMDR, is a therapy used to help people come to terms with difficult things which have happened to them. EMDR can also help in reducing or eliminating some of the consequences of disturbing events – things like; flashbacks, nightmares, upsetting thoughts or images, depression or anxiety.

EMDR is recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Who can EMDR help?

EMDR is often used to help with a variety of emotional problems such as; depression or anxiety, especially where a difficult life event has been the cause. EMDR can be used if someone has seen or experienced a traumatic or distressing event such as a car accident, a violent crime, sexual or emotional abuse, bullying, a social humiliation or the sudden loss of a loved one. EMDR can be used to help people to gradually heal from traumatic events and to recover.

How does EMDR work?

When a person is involved in a traumatising event, they tend to feel overwhelmed and their mind may find it very difficult to process what is going on. Memories of the traumatising event seem to become “blocked” and in this way the memories remain in the mind in a very intense and vivid form. This memory is often re-experienced, when it comes to mind, with the full force of the distress the person felt and with very vivid memories of what they saw, heard and smelt when they experienced the original trauma.

EMDR aims to help a person to unblock and reprocess traumatic memories so that these memories can become more liveable with in the brain so that they are no longer so intense, disturbing and impactful. EMDR can also help people to become more desensitised to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they become more able to think about and talk about the traumatic event without being overwhelmed by strong feelings. EMDR also helps with managining current and potential future triggers to the past trauma.

How is this achieved?

The EMDR psychotherapist achieves this by asking the person to remember the traumatic event whilst the person is simultaneously moving their eyes from side-to-side or listening to a sound in each ear alternately or feeling a tap on each hand or knee alternately. These side-to-side sensations appear to unfreeze the “stuck or blocked” processing structure in the mind, enabling the mind to reprocess the information so that it becomes more like an ordinary memory and feels much more liveable with.

What is the theory behind EMDR?

EMDR may work in a similar way to the process which naturally happens with REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is when people are in deep sleep and are having a dream and their eyes typically move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes and mulls over the events of the day. Researchers have suggested that EMDR works by concentrating the mind on a task whilst the person is processing a difficult memory, and this gives the brain an overload of work. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less impactful and less troubling. This helps the person to distance themselves from the memory and helps them to reprocess the memory so that it becomes calmer and more manageable.