What is EMDR? (Eye Movement De-sensitisation Reprocessing)

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing has emerged in the last 20 years as an alternative psychological treatment for helping people deal with upsetting events. It was developed by Dr Francine Shapiro in 1987. The initial findings were quite remarkable. The treatment led to rapid reductions in a person’s level of distress. In addition, the people treated found that they developed more positive beliefs about themselves and the traumatic memories took on a more historical perspective. This means the event was more like an old memory that they looked back on rather than continually re-experiencing the event in its original, distressing form.

It is important to realise that EMDR cannot be explained by existing psychological theories and that we still don’t know exactly how the treatment works. However there is some information that helps with understanding the EMDR process. We do know that memory processing occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep associated with dreaming. The REM stage of sleep is characterised by the eyes moving rapidly from side to side. You may have noticed someone in REM sleep, when their eyes appear to twitch under the eyelids. We also know that after people experience severe trauma, that the REM stage of sleep is more disrupted than at other stages. it may be that events which are very disturbing to an individual cause a disruption to REM sleep. This may be what is happening when a person wakes with nightmares. The waking prevents the person from adaptively processing the event and thus the event continues to be experienced in its original traumatic form.

EMDR has been considered as a treatment which facilitates the natural healing process by enabling the person to focus on the traumatic material, move their eyes and experience less emotional arousal. Recent studies of brain functioning using brain scans confirm the decreased activation of parts of the brain involved in memory and emotion during EMDR.

Recent independent research tends to suggest that EMDR is a very effective treatment for the post traumatic stress symptoms, but it is not a magic cure. There are now more published studies showing the effectiveness of EMDR than any other treatment for psychological trauma. You can read more about these. There are some conditions which would preclude the use of EMDR and your therapist will discuss this and carry out appropriate assessment.

It is also important to realise that EMDR can involve the brief experiencing of high levels of emotion which are associated with the traumatic memories.  It is important that you have the necessary skills to tolerate these and your therapist will spend some time ensuring that these are in place. If you have had a single incident that underlines your current difficulties, e.g. a recent car accident leading to fear of driving, your response to EMDR is generally very rapid, sometimes taking as little as one session. If your difficulties have their foundation in a long history of trauma (for example emotional or sexual abuse as a child) it will take longer and EMDR will be combined with other approaches to treatment.

Copyright 1996 Chris Lee and Graham Taylor.