Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – An amazing technique for removing the fear from memories associated with trauma

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a long and unwieldy name for a new therapeutic tool that is amazingly quick and easy to use. Discovered in 1987 by Francine Shapiro in the USA, it is now a recognized technique used in trauma centres everywhere, with a plethora of research documentation to back up its effectiveness.

What happens in an EMDR session? The client describes the traumatic memory and is helped to focus on the very worst aspect and the associated feelings and then describe the negative belief he may have internalized as a result. For example, if he had been involved in a road traffic accident and felt that he hadn’t been careful enough, the thought might be “I’m so stupid.’ Then the therapist helps the client formulate the belief he’d really like to have, which could be ‘I do the best I can to keep myself safe.’ The thoughts and feelings are rated on scales of 1-10.

Holding the memory, the negative thought and the feelings in mind, the client then watches the therapist’s hand as she waves it in front of his face for a series of movements, then pauses. The client says whatever he’s thinking, feeling or noticing in his body, then the hand movements start again, and this is repeated until therapist and client seem to have got to the end and nothing new is coming up. They return to the original memory, the thoughts and the feelings and rate them again. The ratings provide an objective measure of change.

How does it work? It seems that the brain fails to process trauma memories in the usual way, and they get stuck in a place (the limbic system) where they are easily triggered. Bilateral stimulation of the brain appears to help these memories shift to the place where ordinary memories are stored (the cerebral cortex), losing their emotional charge on the way. Clients who’ve had EMDR treatment report that although the memory of what happened is still there, the frightening or unpleasant feelings that accompanied it have disappeared, and they feel generally better with them selves.

Eye movements are the usual way of doing EMDR, but other bilateral stimulation methods can be used, such as tapping alternate hands or knees, or listening to sounds through headphones. It is also very effective with the kinds of core beliefs and patterns that no amount of talking therapy can shift. For a simple trauma, like a road traffic accident, six sessions may be all that is needed to process the feelings. More complex trauma is best treated in an on going therapeutic relationship.

Author's Bio: 

Su Fox is a UKCP registered psychotherapist with 20 years of experience helping people with a wide range of issues; childhood trauma, bereavement, crisis of confidence, lack of direction, sexual orientation, search for the spiritual. She also works with EMDR.

She practises in north London, UK. Go to london counselling psychotherapy for more details.