Millions of people worldwide have benefited from the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy that brings recovery from mental health problems triggered by traumatic life events. It is best known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but can help with a range of mental health conditions in people of all ages including depression, anxiety and addiction.
EMDR stops difficult memories from causing so much distress by helping the brain reprocess them properly. It works with memory to heal the mental repercussions of past pain. Unlike traditional talking therapies that help people understand and verbalize their inner experiences through a process that can take many months or even years, EMDR has been proven to be an effective way to heal trauma in just a handful of sessions.
The therapy was developed in 1990 by the US psychologist Francine Shapiro who found that specific eye movements can have a desensitizing effect on those who experience distressing memories or trauma in their lives. It has since been clinically validated by more than 30 randomized, controlled studies, according to the EMDR Research Foundation, and helped millions of people worldwide overcome traumatic events from their past.
Through EMDR, individuals safely reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer psychologically disruptive to their lives. Over time, exposure to traumatic memories will no longer induce negative feelings and distressing symptoms.
Creating Rapid Eye Movement
There are eight phases of treatment: history taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and reevaluation of treatment effect. During treatment, an individual focuses on a disruptive memory and identifies the belief they hold about themselves. If it is connected to a negative memory, the technique teaches the person to change their view of themselves by learning to associate it with a positive belief instead.
The sensations and emotions associated with the memory are identified and the individual then reviews the memory while focusing on an external stimulus that creates rapid eye movement. Typically this is done by watching the therapist move two fingers. After each set of movements, usually involving both eyes, the individual is asked how they feel.
This process continues until the trauma has been processed and the memory is no longer disturbing to the individual.
Sessions typically last from an hour to 90 minutes and can have life-changing impacts. According to the charity PTSD UK, between 84 and 90% of single-trauma victims no longer have PTSD after only three EMDR sessions.
A study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.
The process is understood to work because the “bilateral stimulation” bypasses the area of the brain that processes memories and has become stuck due to the trauma. When a difficult memory is stuck, it prevents the brain from properly processing and storing the memory.
The therapy is globally recognized as an effective treatment for trauma and endorsed by the World Health Organization and The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. Over 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy and millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 25 years.
Case Studies From EMDR UK
As a young mother in the 1980s, Anne suffered a double tragedy when she lost two babies to cot death, an extremely rare occurrence. She went on to have two more children and managed to cope with her previous loss. Many years later when her first grandchild was born Anne found that she was very anxious about the baby’s welfare. She said:
“I had a strong sense of her fragility and wondered if she could survive. I kept checking on her. I didn’t want her to go to sleep. It was a powerful feeling which took me right back in time.”
Anne realized that she was contributing to her daughter’s own anxieties as a new mother and decided to seek professional help from an experienced EMDR therapist friend.
“I was dealing with primal fears that talking therapy probably couldn’t reach. It seems EMDR goes into the non-conscious workings of the brain and is able to confront trauma swiftly and effectively. The therapist needs to be very skilled and intuitive. Helping the person establish and return to a ‘safe place’ in their mind and making sure they are ready to re-imagine and process their trauma safely requires a huge degree of creativity.”
It took just four sessions for Anne to experience a change in her feelings.
“In the final one I didn’t need to go back over my fears, they were no longer disturbing to me. Instead, we focussed on positive thoughts and plans for the future. In some way it felt like a hidden horror but having EMDR has helped transform that to being able to welcome new lives and celebrate them as they should be.”
Trina had been pushing the self-destruct button for most of her life. After marrying young and having her first baby at the age of 19, her mental health deteriorated. She developed an eating disorder, which put her in hospital, and spent the next 15 years in and out of mental health services.
She self-harmed and made suicide attempts. Trina spent a whole year in a psychiatric ward at her lowest point. During this time, she revealed she had been sexually abused by a family member from the age of four until she was nine years old. Her self-destructive behavior was a way of trying to cope with the vivid, terrifying memories.
Trina was suffering from PTSD. She had frequent flashbacks. Certain smells would trigger disturbing memories. She struggled to spend time with her brother’s daughter who looked a lot like Trina as a child. She went through lots of types of therapy over the years, including drama therapy, various psychotherapies and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) but none of these techniques helped address the root of her problems.
It took several years of treatment before she was finally diagnosed with PTSD and EMDR was recommended by a psychologist. Trina said:
“I was really skeptical to start with but EMDR was amazing. It turned my life on its head.”
She spent just under a year in EMDR treatment with Debbie. They worked through every single disturbing memory until their power and vividness faded, and Trina said her whole life was transformed. After being treated for PTSD with EMDR, Trina’s eating disorders, self-harm and all her other self-destructive behavior finally stopped.