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What is EMDR therapy?

Updated: Feb 14

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) is a therapy that is commonly used for overcoming traumas (both big and small). Traditionally it was only used for PTSD, but is now used for many mental health issues, especially where they stem from related traumas.

Unprocessed traumatic memories often come back in the form of panic attacks, intrusive worry thoughts or flashbacks, unexplained pain or repetitive behaviours, especially when there are reminders of the event. So in EMDR you work with the therapist to help these memories to be filed in the right parts of your brain (and body) so that they no longer feel so real or intense.

How does it work?

In an EMDR session we stimulate the left and right hemispheres of your brain in quick succession (known as bilateral stimulation) through rapid eye movement (by following the therapist's finger or a lightbar), taps or sounds (beeps through a headset) and this helps the brain to process the memories.

The path to recovery is considered to be similar to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep - when our eyes move back and forth very quickly, this is when we process memories of the day.

Traumatic memories are encoded differently to non-traumatic memories. This means they are fragmented and less coherent, they can be more vivid and also feel very frightening when they come back. Essentially when trauma memories pop up, our brain isn't sure if they have happened in the past or are happening now so this can trigger panic symptoms. The bilateral stimulation helps to integrate all the fragmented pieces of memory into a more manageable narrative that the brain can now understand is in the past and not happening again.

What happens in an EMDR session?

The processing of memories only happens once you and the therapist have a clear idea of the trauma memories that are holding you back (the assessment stage) and have covered techniques for calming your nervous system down (preparation stage). So early sessions involve discussing your background, developing an understanding of why these traumas have contributed to your difficulty and learning skills like visualisations and self-compassion.

Then, in the trauma processing sessions, your therapist will work with the trauma memory that you've both identified by lighting up all the neural networks that are linked to that event (the image, the emotion, any body sensations and how it made you think about yourself). Once these neural networks are lit up you start the taps, eye movements or beeps and this enables you to start moving through the traumatic material. Most people don't talk at the point so it can feel quite different to any other talking therapies you've tried. It is free associative so for some people it can take a few moments to get into it (which the therapist will support you with).

The therapist will pause the bilateral stimulation at certain points to check in with you, find out what is coming up and guide you if the material is very intense or appears to feel stuck.

The outcome

Most people will notice the memory becomes less emotionally charged. So whilst the memory is still there it is now held differently in your brain and nervous system. It might not become a positive memory but will be held more lightly now, for example you may not blame yourself anymore or feel that you were a failure, you may not feel panicky or get overwhelmed by it. Most importantly, the belief about yourself becomes more adaptive and healthy, meaning that your emotions become more balanced and unhealthy coping behaviours reduce.

How to choose an EMDR therapist

EMDR therapy should be carried out by a therapist with pre-existing core training, for example as a psychologist, psychotherapist or counselling. EMDR therapists who are accredited practitioners have done the pre-requisite number of hours of EMDR therapy, supervision and reflective practice to demonstrate their skills. You can find an accredited EMDR therapist on the EMDR Association website.

What next?

We have several EMDR trained therapists as part of this online therapy service. If you are considering EMDR therapy please get in touch here to discuss with us.

You may also find it helpful to read my blog post How many sessions of therapy will I need?

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