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EMDR Therapy: What is it? And Can it Help Me Heal?

If you’ve heard of it at all, you probably have some misconceptions about EMDR (short for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” therapy). It has a bit of a reputation, probably due to the complex and somewhat unusual nature of the therapy itself. The most popular misconception is that it is a kind of hypnosis that erases unwanted, distressing, or traumatic emotions and memories, and it’s only used for trauma or PTSD. But this isn’t really the case (and there’s good reasons we don’t want to completely erase ‘negative’ emotions such as sadness and anger). In short, EMDR can help you overcome a number of emotional and psychological difficulties, by changing the way we relate to our memories. 

Our emotional state impacts how we remember things

To understand EMDR, we must first learn about memory. Francine Shapiro, who developed both EMDR and a popular model to explain memory, posits that our brains store traumatic events and unpleasant experiences differently from normal memories. It goes like this:

In a neutral or positive event, our brain will ‘encode’ the experience smoothly. It will network the memory in the brain so it is connected to other relevant items, memories, and people associated with the event. For example, if you think of the colour ‘red’; you might think of a red paint swatch, someone you know whose favourite colour is red, and a fire engine that you saw this morning – all past memories linked to the concept of ‘red’. 

During distressing events, the encoding and networking part of memory can go offline

However, during highly distressing and traumatic events, parts of our brain involved in encoding memories can easily be overwhelmed and go ‘offline’. This means that the memory is not encoded as a whole. Rather, it is encoded in parts e.g. the logical facts of the event might be separated from the sensory memory, such as the image or sound of what happened. This explains why trauma memories can be experienced in fragments (such as flashbacks), compared to typical memories which have a neat start, middle and finish.

Experiencing a traumatic event also increases our sensitivity to danger. Because our brains are wired to protect us, when something bad happens our brain will try to protect us from similar events in the future. This means our brain will (sometimes unconsciously) scan our environment for reminders of the traumatic event. If it detects a similarity, it will trigger reminders of the traumatic memory.

However, as the memory is encoded in parts, often without reference points such as a start or finish, the trauma memory is experienced as if the event is happening again in the present moment (and not the past).  Thus, when activated or ‘triggered’, a person may experience an out-of-proportion response as they feel immediately under threat again. 

Malleable memory is a strength, not a flaw, of our brain biology

The plasticity of the human brain is another important concept to understand in relation to EMDR. What I mean by plasticity is that the human brain is flexible and adaptable. For example, when we access a memory, the neuron pathways activated are slightly different depending on which aspect of the memory we are focussing on. So, each time we access a memory, it very slightly alters and updates.

This means our memories are actually malleable and subject to change over time. This has been framed as a major flaw of human memory, providing evidence for why eyewitness testimonies are not credible. However, it is also a strength because it means we can deliberately revisit memories we initially encoded incorrectly, so that they don’t cause ongoing distress. Other therapies seek to address our thoughts, feelings, and behavioural responses to our environment. Whereas EMDR targets the memory itself to help alleviate distress.  

EMDR capitalises on existing emotion processing mechanisms

As best we can tell, EMDR works by mimicking internal emotion processing mechanisms that occur in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. During this stage of sleep, there is increased eye movement from side to side, which stimulates both sides of the brain. This helps to regulate our nervous system and emotions, and safely integrate memories from the day into long-term memory. This bilateral stimulation is also found in walking, which might be why people often feel better after going for a walk when they’re stressed!

During EMDR therapy, the therapist will facilitate bilateral stimulation by using something you can see, hear, or feel, and moving this from either side of the body in a repetitive fashion. For example, moving their fingers side to side across your field of vision, or having you hold a ‘tapper’ in your hands that buzzes from one hand to the other. This helps calm the nervous system. They will then continue this stimulation whilst you think of the traumatic event, and help you stay safely grounded in the present while your brain processes the memory. 

The product of this process is a transformed relationship to the target experience or memory. Some clients who have been through EMDR report feeling transformed and empowered by the therapeutic process. They have stated that while the memory is still there, it doesn’t cause them distress because they have processed it safely and rationally, so it is no longer an ongoing threat. 

EMDR has been officially recognised across the world as an effective evidence-based treatment  

EMDR is becoming more prevalent in research and clinical practice as results continue to indicate its efficiency.  Over thirty positive controlled outcome studies have been conducted, with 85-90% of single trauma victims reporting reductions in post-traumatic stress symptoms after just three 90-minute sessions. The evidence for EMDR has been so prominent that it has officially been recognised by the World Health Organisation, the Australian Department of Defence, the Australian Psychology Society, and the American Psychology Association.

While EMDR is best known for treating trauma and PTSD, it can also help treat a range of other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, depression, dissociative disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, chronic pain, and addiction. This is because the treatment can target any unprocessed memory, emotion, or experience, at the core of the condition. 

It should be noted that EMDR is different from other therapies in that the psychologist isn’t interpreting or advising the client but simply facilitating the client’s own innate emotional processing capabilities. This requires the client to be comfortable in experiencing and tolerating their emotions, especially difficult emotions, as you are required to ‘sit’ in them to change them. 

So, you’re interested in EMDR

If you think you might be interested in EMDR treatment or would like to book in to see an EMDR psychologist to discuss if it is a good fit for you, then reach out to our support team today. We have a growing body of EMDR clinicians who are passionate about this approach. You can also check out our other blogs about different therapy modalities, such as CBT for anxiety and the benefits of mindfulness, to explore other therapies that might help you heal.