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  • Writer's pictureDr Joanne Stuart

EMDR - what is it?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing)

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a form of therapy based on the understanding that the experience of trauma can affect the way the brain processes memories. Memories of a traumatic event can be overwhelming and intense. People struggling with trauma can feel as though they are actually reliving the event and re-experiencing the things that happened, and which they have remembered. The approach was started by Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, who in 1987 made the chance observation that under certain conditions eye movements can reduce the intensity of distressing thoughts. It has evolved since this time and is now a standardized set of protocols which incorporate elements from different treatment approaches, and extend beyond the use of just eye movements.

What does EMDR do?

EMDR enables you to revisit your trauma in a safe and therapeutic environment and reduce the intensity of these memories so that you no longer relive your experience. In terms of how this works, no-one knows exactly how any form of therapy works neurobiologically. However, we know that brain processing is affected when someone is upset, and traumatic memories can therefore be ‘frozen in time’ in the brain. These memories can have a negative impact on a person’s beliefs, thoughts and behaviour. EMDR seems to return the brain’s processing to a more normal level. It is thought to work a bit like REM (rapid eye movement) or dreaming sleep, where the brain sorts through the information it needs and incorporates and integrates it into the memory networks in the brain. The result, therefore, is to reduce the emotional intensity of the memory, whilst not removing the memory itself.

What happens in a session of EMDR?

An EMDR therapist will ask you to concentrate your mind on your trauma whist at the same time providing your brain with sensory input. The sensory input could take one of several different forms, but the important factor is that the input provides bilateral stimulation of the brain. The methods can include, for instance, tapping both of your knees, listening to sounds through headphones, or following your therapists fingers with your eyes. It is thought that recalling memories whilst also receiving this external stimulus enables the brain to change the way in which the memories are processed. Experience during a session may include changes in thoughts, images or feelings.

At the end of successful treatment you will still be able to recall the events, but the sense of distress should leave you.

What can EMDR be used for?

EMDR is most known as a treatment for PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

However, clinicians have reported that it has also been used successfully to treat problems where there has been some kind of difficult emotional experience, such as:

Anxiety and panic attacks

Sleep problems


Problems with self-esteem






Relationship difficulties including childhood attachment trauma

By Gemma Lutwyche

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