Specifically, it can be useful in the treatment of:
- trauma and trauma-related disorders;
- phobias (intense and extreme fear of specific things);
- grief and loss.
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s in the USA by a woman named Francine Shapiro. She noticed that when she was thinking about troubling memories, if she made broad, sweeping movements with her eyes, the emotional intensity of the memories decreased.
This inspired her to research whether these eye movements could help to reduce unpleasant emotions associated with troubling memories in other people.
In the decades since, hundreds of studies have been conducted, and have shown that eye movements and other things that stimulate both sides of the brain are an effective way to reduce the emotional impact of events, and to resolve troubling memories.
Stimulating both Sides of the Brain
Both hemispheres of your brain can be stimulated at once by following a therapist’s hand with your eyes, having the therapist tap each of your hands while they are resting on your knees or a pillow, or by holding buzzers that pulse in your hands, or by listening to tones through earphones, presented to each ear.
At present, the scientific community is not entirely certain why stimulating both hemispheres of the brain helps to resolve troubling memories, but the research is clear that it does work when it is done with a properly trained therapist.
Some researchers think that having both brain hemispheres being stimulated while thinking about difficult material, helps the highly emotional right hemisphere make links with the rational and logical left hemisphere. Previously these links may have been broken or poorly formed when an overwhelming experience occurred.
Other researchers think that the stimulation helps to keep people aware of the present moment when they mentally travel back into the troubling memories, and that this dual awareness of present and past helps the brain to reprocess the troubling events in a calmer context.
More research is needed to resolve exactly why EMDR is such an effective method for helping people to cope with troubling memories.
The EMDR Treatment Process
If your therapist thinks that EMDR may help you, you will begin by developing skills to ensure that you can handle high levels of disturbing emotions. This will help you to feel confident and in control during your therapy. You will have a close look at your coping strategies, and make sure that you are not putting yourself at risk of harm with your chosen methods of coping.
When you both feel ready, you will map out a troubling memory, and identify a difficult thought that the memory triggers about yourself in the present. For example, thinking about the event might make you think “I am vulnerable.” You will identify the emotions that the event stirs up in you, and locate them in your body. You will think about what you would prefer to think about yourself when recalling the event; for instance, you may wish to think “I am safe now.”
Eventually, you will be asked to think about your troubling memory while stimulating both side of your brain, and your job is to sit back and notice whatever happens. You will be like a passenger on a train, watching the scenery go by through the window. All you need to do is notice what is happening, and eventually, things will begin to settle down for you. You will be asked to scan your body for signs of disturbance, and you will keep processing with the bilateral stimulation until all the disturbance associated with the memory has settled.
One important part of the treatment is preparing you for the future. You will be asked to consider future situations in which you may encounter similar difficulties, and you will do some processing of these with bilateral stimulation so that you can move on from your therapy, confident that you can cope with difficulties that may lie ahead.
Author: Dr Catherine Hynes, BA Hons (Philosophy & Neuroscience), MA (Cognitive Neuroscience), PhD (Clinical Psychology & Clinical Neuropsychology).
Dr Catherine Hynes has a PhD in clinical psychology and neuropsychology from the University of Queensland and can provide expert help to people troubled by past memories and trauma. She uses evidence-based therapies, and works with her clients in a warm and supportive way to help them decide what therapy and what strategies are most suitable to their personal tastes and circumstances.
To make an appointment, you can book Dr Catherine Hynes online, or freecall Vision Psychology on 1800 877 924 today.
- Shapiro, F. (2001) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Second Edition. UK: Guildford Press.