EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It is a therapy used to treat people who are experiencing problems as a result of past distressing events. These problems can present as flashbacks, upsetting thoughts or images, depression or anxiety.
EMDR is recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Here is a video from the EMDR International Association, that gives a good introduction to the therapy:
How Does EMDR Work
When a person experiences a traumatic event, it is completely overwhelming, and their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. Because the brain has been unable to process the memory in a normal way, the memory of the event can become “stuck” making it remain very intense and vivid when it is remembered; this is what is referred to as a ‘flashback’. During a flashback, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard and smelt during the traumatic experience. A flashback can be extremely distressing and people often experience high levels of distress, it can feel like the trauma is happening all over again.
EMDR helps the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory so it is no longer so intense and vivid. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory so that when it is remembered it is not so distressing. It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side (or sometimes alternating sounds between the ears, or other kinds of alternating stimulation can be used). These side-to-side movements stimulate the “stuck” memory in the brain, triggering the natural processing function of the brain to reprocess the information. When the brain can reprocess the memory in a more ordinary and natural way the memory is no longer so distressing.
There are two main theories as to how EMDR works, the side-to-side eye movements mimic what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, during REM sleep the brain is thought to be processing the events of the day. A second theory suggests that focusing on another task while remembering the event keeps your brain busy. When the brain is busy in this way it can reduce the vividness and intensity of the memory by allowing the brain to process the memory without the ‘thinking brain’ getting involved (over analysing can inhibit the natural processing of the memory).
Who Benefits from EMDR
EMDR is most widely known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is widely used by the NHS, charitable organisations and private sector, and the Ministry of Defence use EMDR to help service personnel with PTSD.
EMDR can also be used to help with a range of other mental health problems like depression or anxiety, especially where a difficult life event may be a factor (these events can be called ‘small traumas’ and are the kind of things most people experience at some point in their lives). EMDR can also be useful for people who have witnessed or experienced events like a car accident, a violent crime, sexual or emotional abuse, bullying, or other distressing life events.