In 2019, Jameela Jamil told her Instagram followers that it ‘saved her life’ and earlier this year, Prince Harry revealed on camera how it helped him to cope with childhood trauma. With EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) rarely out of the headlines, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a brand new psychological treatment.
But it was actually developed in 1987 by Dr Francine Shapiro, who observed that under certain conditions, eye movements can reduce the experience of disturbing or traumatic thoughts.
Over the last 30 years, it has been extensively researched and is approved by both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and in the UK, by the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence (NICE), the body that recommends which drugs and treatments should be available on the NHS.
EMDR is primarily known as a treatment for PTSD/trauma, although it has also been shown to be effective for a wide range of problems including panic attacks, complicated grief, phobias, pain disorders, addictions, and body dysmorphic disorders. It can even be used to help prepare for a future event, for example, ahead of a major presentation, interview or high-stakes meeting.
EMDR appeals to many patients because one does not need to talk in detail about the trauma, which can be extremely difficult for a lot of people
When a person experiences trauma, various hormones, like adrenaline, are released into the body, causing the brain’s limbic system to become overactive. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logic and reason, is shut down and so we are unable to make sense of the overwhelming emotions we experience. As a result of this, we experience trauma.
EMDR works to slow down the emotional part of the brain, which can then allow us to process our trauma better, relieving symptoms including anxiety, depression and flashbacks.
It does this through a process called bilateral stimulation, which essentially means you think about your trauma whilst your therapist helps you to process it in the here and now, through either eye movements or tapping. The work usually takes place over six to 12 hour-long sessions.
As an experienced practitioner of both EMDR and other psychological treatments, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), I can see that EMDR appeals to many patients because one does not need to talk in detail about the trauma, which can be extremely difficult for a lot of people. It is also a highly structured therapy, and much groundwork is covered to help people learn the skills to better manage their distressing feelings.
EMDR therapy cannot be used to remove memories and it will not make someone forget the difficult things they have experienced in the past. But what it can do, quite dramatically, is change their reaction to the memories. Post-EMDR, memories that were previously traumatic, will be recalled in much the same way as more neutral thoughts, which for many, means they can start to get on with the rest of their lives.