There is very good evidence that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy approach designed for working with distressing or traumatic memories and an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The brain is mis-reading threats in the current environment. By targeting the traumatic event and the way it is STORED, a successful re-processing session changes a disturbing memory into one that is no longer emotionally distressing.
EMDR is not hypnosis.
What is EMDR?
EMDR was developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro and stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
EMDR focuses on treatment of emotional difficulties caused by disturbing life experiences (including natural disasters, combat stress, sexual assault, upsetting childhood experiences, and other negative experiences) which impact on present day functioning.
There is an inherent information processing system in the brain, which processes the multiple elements of an individual’s experiences in an adaptive manner. This system gets blocked when traumatic events occur, causing traumatic experiences to get locked in the brain with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations.
Whenever a reminder of the traumatic event comes up, those pictures, thoughts, feelings, and sensations can be triggered.
Research on the brain science of trauma helps to explain how the implicit memories connected to traumatic experiences are stored in the highly sensitive amygdala and hippocampus, resulting in intense behavioural and emotional responses to present day triggers.
These traumatic memories may need some help to become processed, and EMDR is one way to do this.
Experiencing EMDR Therapy
Bi-lateral stimulation has been found to enhance memory processing, and is the aspect of EMDR most well known.
It is performed via the therapist asking the client to follow the movement of their hand as they move it left to right in front of the client.
EMDR is not hypnosis.
Sessions usually last up to 1 1/2 hours.
How is EMDR therapy different from other therapies?
EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or completing homework between sessions. EMDR therapy allows the brain to resume its natural healing process.
EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain.
How does EMDR therapy affect the brain?
Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. This process involves communication between the amygdala (the alarm signal for stressful events), the hippocampus (which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger), and the prefrontal cortex (which analyses and controls behaviour and emotion). While many times traumatic experiences can be managed and resolved spontaneously, they may not be processed without help.
Stress responses are part of our natural fight, flight, or freeze instincts. When distress from a disturbing event remains, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment, or of being “frozen in time.”
EMDR therapy helps the brain process these memories, and allows normal healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the fight, flight, or freeze response from the original event is resolved.
Stages of EMDR Therapy
To give you an overview of the stages of EMDR and what to expect:
Stage One: Client History
- Take a general history and develop an appropriate plan.
Stage Two: Preparation
- Introduce and prepare the client for EMDR.
- Provide general understanding of theory and how the brain originally stores information.
- Creating a safe / calm place.
- Resource installation
- Testing eye movements / Hand taps / Auditory cues
Stage Three: Assessment of Issue Presented
- Address primary aspects of the target and obtain baseline measures.
Stage Four: Desensitisation
- Reprocess target memory and all that is related.
- Channels of association towards an adaptive resolution.
- Moves from dysfunctional to functional
Stage Five: Installation
- Integrate positive effects.
- How TRUE does this feel now?
Stage Six: Body Scan (The body keeps the score)
- Check for any residual somatic experience.
- Alerts to any unprocessed material.
Stage Seven: Closure
- Close a complete or incomplete session.
Stage Eight: Re-Evaluation
- Verify if all aspects of the treatment plan are being addressed.
It is recommended by the American Psychological Association (USA) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE, UK) as an effective treatment for PTSD.
Research on the brain science of trauma helps to explain how the implicit memories connected to traumatic experiences are stored in the highly sensitive amygdala and hippocampus, resulting in intense behavioural and emotional responses to present day triggers: (Siegel, 2010; van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996).