EMDR is a revolutionary psychological treatment method that was developed and patented by an American clinical psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s. As a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, USA, she published the first research data to support its benefits in 1989. Today, EMDR is best evidence treatment (NICE guidelines) for psychological trauma and PTSD. Since its original development, EMDR is also increasingly used to help individuals with other issues including phobias, anxiety, pain management, phantom limb pain and depression.
The effectiveness of EMDR therapy has been well established as the result of about 38 randomized controlled studies and 7 meta-analyses, demonstrating its benefits in treating psychological trauma and PTSD arising from experiences as diverse as war related experiences, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, natural disaster, assault, surgical trauma, road traffic accidents and workplace accidents.
How does it work?
When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and, therefore, their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level.
Along with this “trapped” negative experience is the negative emotion, sensory information, and the initial interpretation of the experience. Even though these negative emotions, memories or beliefs are “locked away,” they can still affect us greatly and are often triggered by various sensory input (sight, smell, touch, taste, or hearing). When a negative memory is triggered, the neurological response is protection and the result is a state of hyper-arousal commonly referred to as flight, fight or even freeze.
The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps (bilateral stimulation) during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system. In the process the memories seem to lose their intensity, so they become less distressing and seem more like ‘ordinary’ memories. EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it is images, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, thoughts or beliefs.
This type of stimulation resembles REM (rapid eye movement) sleep as our eyes move from one side to the other. While awake in EMDR treatment, the brain is assisted in resolving feelings, beliefs or experience not yet resolved though the brain’s natural process.