EMDR – short for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing – was developed in 1989 in the USA by a psychologist called Francine Shapiro.
Shapiro 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 eye movements could help to reduce distress associated with troubling memories in other people.
Research into EMDR
Since this time, hundreds of studies have been conducted that have shown that EMDR is successful in helping people who have been negatively affected by life events. By stimulating both sides of the brain (which is called “bilateral stimulation”), it reduces the vividness of a memory and the emotional response a person has to it. Bilateral stimulation also increases connections to positive thoughts and positive memories (which are called “adaptive memory networks”).
Some researchers think that having both brain hemispheres being stimulated while thinking about a difficult memory, helps the emotional right side of the brain make links with the rational and logical left side of the brain. Previously these links may have been broken or poorly formed when an overwhelming experience occurred.
Other researchers think that bilateral stimulation helps to process unresolved memories that are “frozen”. These memories are thought to be maladaptively stored because they were too overwhelming to process at the time of the event. Bilateral stimulation facilitates the pathway to adaptive or helpful memory networks, which are located in a different part of the brain and referred to as “semantic” or “narrative” memories.
What is EMDR used for?
EMDR is internationally recognised as one of the best treatment options for PTSD and trauma.
There is also growing evidence to suggest that EMDR is an effective treatment option for stress, anxiety, panic, depression, pain relief, grief, phobias and alcohol and drug addiction. You can read about some of the research findings at http://www.emdr.com.
The treatment process is gentle. It does not involve describing in depth, previously experienced traumatic events. Talking about trauma experiences is not the focus of treatment. In 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) said:
“EMDR therapy aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive [i.e. helpful] cognitions [i.e. thoughts] related to the traumatic event. Unlike CBT [‘Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’] with a trauma focus, EMDR does not involve: a) detailed descriptions of the event; b) direct challenging of beliefs; c) extended exposure; d) homework”.
What does EMDR treatment involve?
If your therapist thinks that EMDR may help you, you will begin by developing skills to ensure that you can cope with high levels of disturbing emotions. This will help you to feel confident and in control during your therapy.
When are ready, you will identify a troubling memory with your therapist 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 feelings that the event triggers in you, and locate the reactions or sensations in your body. For example, you might feel fearful and have butterflies in your stomach. 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 sides of your brain, and your job is to sit back and notice whatever happens. 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/knees, or by holding buzzers that pulse in your hands, or by listening to tones through earphones, presented to each ear.
You will be like a passenger on a train, watching the scenery go by. You will 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 discomfort or disturbance. Bilateral stimulation will continue until all the disturbance associated with the memory has gone.
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.
If you would like to find out more about EMDR or if it could help you to overcome troubling memories or past trauma, please make an appointment with me soon.
Author: Sarah Miller, B Sc Hons (Psych), M Sc, (Forensic Psych).
Brisbane Psychologist Sarah Miller has a special interest in trauma therapy, and is currently investigating the gender differences in trauma and harmful behaviours as part of her PhD. She is experienced in utilising a number of therapies – including EMDR – which are backed up by strong scientific support.
You can book Brisbane Psychologist Sarah Miller online, or call Vision Psychology Mt Gravatt on (07) 3088 5422.