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What is EMDR?


What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR; Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b) is a psychotherapy which is commonly used when individuals have experienced traumatic experiences, such as road traffic accidents, assaults, or childhood traumas. Numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of EMDR in relieving emotional distress, nightmares, anxiety, and flashbacks.


EMDR argues that, under the right circumstances, the mind will intuitively move towards healing itself, much in the same was as a broken bone will naturally attempt to heal. Through the bi-lateral stimulation of the brain, the therapist and client can process unresolved traumas. This results in the activation of the traumatic memory network, so that information processing is enhanced, and new adaptive associations and memories can be forged.


What is special about trauma memories?

Under normal circumstances, memories are stored by a part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus can be understood as our librarian, who files away (processes) events in our internal filing cabinet. It can incorporate and combine both the contextual and emotional information from an event. However, when an individual experiences a trauma (e.g., natural disasters, accidents, violence, etc), our hippocampus’ can become overwhelmed and processing of the event is left to the amygdala. You can think of the amygdala as our alarm system, which is constantly on the lookout for threat. Whilst this part of our brain is excellent at keeping us safe, it is unable to process memories. Consequently, the memories are stored in their emotional, unprocessed, form, resulting in flashbacks, increased anxiety, hyperarousal, and dissociation.


What will I be asked to do in an EMDR session?



Preparation phase

· You will be initially asked to identify a troubling memory, then pinpoint an image of the worst moment of that memory.

· The therapist will then help you to identify a negative belief you hold about yourself (e.g., “I am weak”), emotions, and bodily sens


ations linked to the worst moments of the event.


Processing phase

· You will then be asked to think about the image and the belief whilst simultaneously making left-to-right eye movements (or paying attention to tapping sensations that are alternately given left-to-right), known as bi-lateral stimulation.

· During bi-lateral stimulation, contextual information from the left brain and emotional information from the right brain, start to be combined resulting in the processing of the trauma event. As this is occurring, you mind may go between images and memories, and your therapist will encourage you to simply notice where your mind goes.

· The therapist will pause you after a short time and ask you about what images / thoughts / sensations came to mind. This process will be repeated until the distress linked to the memory is completely removed.


What is EMDR used to treat?

EMDR is recommended by the National institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the America Psychological Association (APA) as an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is also some good evidence to suggest that EMDR is an effective treatment for other trauma related conditions, particularly if they involve trauma memories.




If you have experienced an event in which your life was threatened, which has resulted in increased levels of anxiety, depression, anger, agitation, nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation, memory disturbance, hypervigilance, and/or difficulties in concentration, you may benefit from engaging in EMDR.


Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

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