EMDR: Is It Right For You? What You Need to Know

How to find a psychologist that's right for you


What is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is used to help people recover from trauma related to a distressing life experience. The therapy premises that traumatic experiences can block the normal memory processing mechanism of the brain and the traumatic memories can be continually triggered, causing ongoing feelings such as anxiety and panic. EMDR aims to assist the brain to free the blockage, thereby enabling effective processing of the traumatic memories.

How does EMDR work

EMDR is based on the premise that the brain routinely processes and stores information and experiences during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. However some experiences are so traumatic that this natural processing mechanism becomes overloaded and the brain is unable to fully process the memories during REM sleep. These unprocessed memories are stored in emotional form in the limbic system of the brain rather than as more neutral language in the cortex. Sights, sounds, words or smells can trigger these unprocessed memories causing the individual to re-experience the trauma. EMDR therapy aims to replicate REM sleep to facilitate the processing of these memories. It uses bi-lateral simulation – right-left eye movements – similar to those that occur during REM sleep. During the therapy, the client reflects on thoughts and feelings they experienced during the traumatic event while being guided by the therapist to continually move their eyes from left to right. This facilitates the brain to process the traumatic memories which, after repeated sets of eye movements, lose their intensity and become a more neutral memory of a past event. The therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue.

What is EMDR used for

Research suggests that EMDR is generally a safe and effective therapy. It was originally endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ongoing research indicates that EMDR can help manage many other mental health concerns including anxiety, phobias, personality disorders, panic attacks and eating disorders. It is also compatible with other types of therapy

What can I expect from EMDR

EMDR therapy can range from a few sessions focussing on a single traumatic incident to being part of a longer psychotherapy program. Each session generally lasts for 60 minutes but some sessions may go longer. The sessions begin with the therapist and the client identifying the specific problem that will be the focus of the therapy. This may include compiling a case history to help identify when the client began experiencing the symptoms and feelings associated with the traumatic experience. As EMDR is not a talking therapy, a few key components, rather than a detailed description is adequate for this step. The therapist will also explain what the client can expect from the therapy.

During the sessions, the client is asked to recall the traumatic experiences while following with their eyes the left-right finger movement of the therapist. After the eye-movement session is finished, the client tells the therapist what they experienced. Further sets of eye movements follow. As the process is repeated, the brain is able to successfully process the traumatic memory or issue. As this occurs, the memories lose their intensity, becoming less vivid and upsetting.

While EMDR usually requires several sessions, clients may notice some improvement after the very first session.

When doesn’t EMDR work

While it has been shown to be an effective therapy for many individuals, EMDR therapy is not appropriate for everyone. The therapy relies on the mind’s ability to focus and process thoughts and feelings. It may therefore not work for individuals with complex mental health issues like dissociative disorders and personality disorders that affect their ability to focus as required.

Things to consider before choosing EMDR

Although therapists have been successfully using EMDR for several decades and research increasingly suggests that it is effective and safe, there are some possible side-effects that need to be considered before choosing the therapy. The individual is recalling emotionally painful memories. These may trigger at least initially, some emotional or physical discomfort. This could include realistic dreams, heightened sensitivity to physical sensations or emotions and light headedness. At the same time, EMDR works rapidly so any discomfort may be comparatively short-lived.

The certification and experience of the EMDR therapist should be considered.


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