What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a form of psychological intervention that is effective in dealing with a wide variety of problems from stress to psychological trauma.

EMDR is among the most thoroughly researched psychological methods. Many randomised controlled trials have demonstrated its effectiveness within just a few sessions.

You may wonder why you haven’t heard about EMDR before. Although EMDR was discovered almost 30 years ago, in terms of scientific knowledge, EMDR is relatively young. It is standard practice that before a new treatment is made available to the public, it has to go through a vetting process that can take many years.

EMDR was discovered by Dr Francine Shapiro, an American clinical psychologist, in the 1980’s. Ten years before the publication of the first research study in EMDR, Dr Shapiro was feeling very upset following a diagnosis of cancer, which at that time was almost like a death sentence. This changed her direction in life from studying English Literature to focusing deeply on the interconnections of  mind, body and stress. In May 1987, while  walking through a park , she noticed that some disturbing thoughts she was having disappeared rather suddenly. When she tried to recall them, they simply weren’t as bothersome as before. She realised that at the time the thoughts disappeared,  her eyes had been  moving very rapidly. She wondered if these two simultaneous events were related. To test this theory, she asked volunteers suffering from various emotional and psychological problems to follow her finger with their eyes as it moved  side to side several times while focusing on the things that caused them distress. The results were very positive. These findings led to further research and to the development of a new form of therapy with eight phases, called EMDR. Although eye movements were initially used, audio and gentle tactile bilateral stimulation (BLS) are now also commonly employed. Clients may choose whichever modality they feel most comfortable with.

As its core, EMDR eliminates bothersome  psychological and emotional pain that is not useful. Desensitisation is a term that means ‘to cause someone to react less to, or be less affected by something, so the person will not feel [it] anymore.’  The reprocessing of unpleasant memories through bilateral stimulation of the brain makes this possible, leading to the disappearance of the current symptoms. As both hemispheres of the brain are stimulated, this allows the affected memory to access valuable subconscious information, leading to the resolution of the problem.

In its early years, EMDR was used to help Vietnam War veterans who were suffering from what used to be called ‘shell shock’ and is now called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These veterans experienced highly debilitating feelings related to their past traumas, which caused them to relive distressing events repeatedly. PTSD’s symptoms can disrupt people’s lives for many years but EMDR can help. Research has shown that most PTSD sufferers recover after a few EMDR sessions and that their symptoms disappear completely. The fact that EMDR can help in such complex situations, is an indicator of how effective and powerful this form of therapy is.

For more information about how EMDR can help you, please download  the FREE guide  EMDR A State of the Art Approach to Bring About Change: The Client’s Guide.


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