Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a new therapy approach recognised as a powerful treatment for emotional difficulty. The approach is recommended by research, and an important alternative to standard talking therapies.
EMDR therapy helps to heal emotional patterns that result from damaging life experiences. Sometimes these are events resulting in PTSD, but EMDR also helps with issues not commonly understood to be traumatic. For example self-esteem or anxiety problems rooted in short periods of school bullying, living in the shadow of a talented older sibling in adolescence, or a lack of nurture from parents across childhood, etc.
EMDR is a time-focused treatment that makes a difference in the short-medium term. Many clients start seeing improvements following a handful of sessions with benefits building over a series of appointments.
In this article, we will explore everything you need to know about EMDR – including its history, the techniques of EMDR, as well as its effectiveness in treating mental health conditions.
History of EMDR
EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. As Shapiro walked through a park thinking through difficult personal issues, she noticed negative feelings resolving as sun strobed through nearby trees creating a sense of calm. This “apple falling from the tree” chance encounter left Shapiro feeling curious to research further.
The observation led Shapiro to experiment with ‘bilateral stimulation’ techniques, which have ultimately become the basis of modern EMDR. Bilateral stimulation is now created in sessions by Psychologists by eye movements, rhythmic tapping, light bars, or audial pulses.
Shapiro’s initial research focused on the use of EMDR to treat PTSD in army veterans. She helped traumatised soldiers better process the events they continued to struggle with and the results were promising.
Since then, EMDR has been used to treat a range of mental health conditions and has become a NICE and NHS recommended treatment option for those who have experienced trauma.
How EMDR Works
EMDR is a structured approach that involves eight phases.
The first phase involves an assessment of the history of difficulties and current symptoms.
The second phase involves developing a plan to target the specific negative experiences that drive current emotion.
During the third phase, negative self-beliefs, emotions, and physical sensations are defined. These emotions can be seen to link with earlier negative events.
Bilateral stimulation techniques are then applied, and by concurrently allowing emotions and memories to free associate EMDR begins to tap in to the mind’s natural ability to restructure memories and emotional content in to healthier nervous system arrangements. Sometimes the therapist helps healing by taking an active role in the processing.
Time is taken to evaluate whether distress associated with the memory has changed, and the process repeats until a substantial shift in feeling occurs.
In the later phases, new positive beliefs are defined and reinforced, and new coping strategies to bring to life are developed.
Benefits of EMDR
Research has shown that EMDR is highly effective in treating PTSD and is recommened by the National Institute for Health and Care Exfellence (NICE). EMDR also helps with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, problems with relationship patterns, anger, and and other conditions.
One of the primary benefits of EMDR is that it is a highly attuned treatment, and works by eliciting emotion in sessions – not simply talking about problems.
EMDR creates a safe and controlled environment in which to deal with unsettling memories – which is particularly important in the case of traumatised patients.
EMDR allows us to access memories that have been stored in the mind dysfunctionally – in the case of PTSD this means in fragmented or disorganised patterns containing immediate emotion.
Allowing the mind to reorganise memories and feelings more adaptively in the nervous system orients patients to a positive self-image, a better sense of self-integration, and by extension improved behavioural functioning.
EMDR can also help clients identify negative beliefs about themselves, the World, or other people. Updating these negative beliefs reduces stuckness, allowing growth and positivity.
Many clients start seeing improvements after just a few sessions, and the treatment can be completed in as few as 6-12 sessions.
Effectiveness of EMDR
There have been numerous studies conducted on the effectiveness of EMDR, particularly in the treatment of PTSD.
One study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that EMDR was significantly more effective in reducing PTSD symptoms than cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
Another study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that EMDR was as effective as CBT in reducing PTSD symptoms over a longer period of time.
In addition to PTSD, EMDR has been shown to be effective in treating other mental health conditions.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders found that EMDR was effective in treating a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and phobias.
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation techniques to help clients process traumatic experiences and negative emotions.
The most common form of bilateral stimulation used in EMDR is eye movements. During a session, the therapist will guide the client through a series of eye movements while they focus on the targeted memory or negative emotion.
Other forms of bilateral stimulation, such as tapping or auditory stimulation, may also be used.
There are various theories on why bilateral stimulation works. One theory is that it helps to activate the brain’s natural healing processes by simulating the same type of eye movements that occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.
During this stage of sleep, the brain processes and consolidates memories, which may explain why bilateral stimulation can help clients process traumatic experiences more effectively.
Symptoms EMDR Treats
EMDR has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of mental health conditions, particularly those related to trauma. Here are some of the symptoms EMDR can help treat:
- PTSD: EMDR is one of the most effective treatments for PTSD. It can help clients process traumatic memories and reduce symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and hypervigilance.
- Anxiety: EMDR can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, including excessive worry, panic attacks, and phobias.
- Depression: EMDR can help reduce symptoms of depression, such as sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest in activities.
- Addiction: EMDR can help address underlying trauma and negative emotions that may be contributing to addictive behaviors.
- Chronic pain: EMDR can help reduce the emotional distress associated with chronic pain and improve quality of life.
Timescale of EMDR
EMDR is a relatively short-term treatment compared to other forms of therapy.
The number of sessions required varies depending on the nature of the difficulties, the length of time that problems have existed for, the recency of the causal events, and the severity of symptoms. Typically, clients will attend weekly or fortnightly sessions for between 6-15 weeks.
The length of each session can vary but is usually 60 minutes. In some cases longer sessions help when dealing with more complex trauma.
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Everything you need to know about EMDR – conclusion
EMDR is an effective treatment, particularly for mental health problems related to negative life events or trauma. This therapy uses bilateral stimulation to help the mind to better process old events and update current negative emotions. In turn leading to adaptive and integrated functioning, emotional relief, and more behavioural freedom.
EMDR is a focused treatment with many clients seeing improvements in the early phases of treatment.
The therapy has been shown to be effective across numerous studies, with research on PTSD showing particularly impressive results.
If you are struggling with a mental health condition related to dysfunctional life experiences, EMDR is likely to be an effective treatment for you.