EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing)


EMDR is an abbreviation for ‘Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing’ which is a leading treatment approach for trauma originally developed by Dr Francine Shapiro in 1987. EMDR has a significant evidence base for the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), i.e. individuals who experience psychological difficulties arising from traumatic experiences such as military combat, torture, violent assault, road traffic accidents, natural or man-made disasters, sexual abuse and childhood neglect. EMDR is recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a recommended treatment for children, adolescents and adults with PTSD. It is also recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) as an effective treatment for PTSD. EMDR has also been found to be an effective treatment for symptoms which are not necessarily trauma-related, such as panic disorder, phobias, self-esteem issues and other anxiety-related disorders.


How does EMDR work?


Research has shown that when an individual experiences a traumatic event eliciting significant emotional distress, this overloads the brain’s natural coping mechanism. The brain has trouble processing the information relating to the traumatic event, causing it to be stored as fragments of information rather than laid down as a complete memory. This means that fragments of the memory get stuck in the emotional part of the brain, causing it to be experienced as something that is happening in the present. Often the memory itself may be long forgotten but the painful feelings such as fear and despair, in addition to associated sensory information relating to that memory are triggered when aspects of one’s environment match the fragments of the memory. These occurrences can make it difficult to live in the present and learn from new experiences, often keeping one’s mind and body stuck in the past. EMDR aims to help clients to remember their traumatic memories but no longer re-experience them (e.g. through flashbacks), which causes intense distress. In order to do this, the client is encouraged to attend to emotionally disturbing material (i.e. their traumatic memories) whilst following eye movements (i.e. by watching the therapist’s hand moving back and forwards across one’s visual field) or other forms of alternative dual attention stimulation, such as hand-tapping. It appears that the dual attention stimulation used in EMDR helps the traumatic memory to be processed in the brain properly, allowing it to be laid down in memory as an event that happened in the past, rather than continuing to be fragmented, causing it to be felt as a current experience that is repeatedly being relived. Moreover, during EMDR the information relating to a disturbing memory is adaptively processed with new associations being made between the traumatic memory and more adaptive information which leads to the memory changing in such a way that it loses its painful intensity.




EMDR is a three-pronged approach involving processing of:




  • Traumatic past events that underpin psychological distress
  • Present situations that cause distress
  • Future scenarios which can be approached in a more adaptive way




The video below explains how EMDR works and what to expect in therapy:















In this video, Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR discusses how she developed EMDR: