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Author: Dr Jennifer OpokuChartered Counselling Psychologist

EMDR therapy is a recognised and effective treatment option for anxiety, PTSD and other conditions.

Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you
Jean-Paul Sartre


What is EMDR therapy?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) was developed in the 1980’s by a psychologist who was interested in how our brains could be ‘reprogrammed’ to overcome distressing memories and thoughts.

EMDR therapy is recognised by many health care professionals (and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) and World Health Organisation-(WHO)) as a successful and effective treatment option for PTSD.

EMDR is effective for treating psychological trauma arising from experiences as varied as war related experiences, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, surgical trauma, natural disaster, road traffic accidents, assault, panic attacks, complicated grief, workplace accidents and personality disorders.

Dr Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, believed that traumatic memories could override our normal coping mechanisms, resulting in some people’s lives being ruined by distressing flashbacks, crippling anxiety and panic attacks and memories that were overwhelming.
Dr Jennifer Opoku - Doctorate, Msc, Bsc


EMDR therapy explained

EMDR is a psychological treatment designed specifically for working with the effects of psychological trauma. EMDR suggests that many psychological difficulties are the result of distressing life experiences that have not been processed or stored in memory properly.

Normally, memories are processed and integrated using the individual’s past experience of themselves and the world they live in. However, when you are involved in a distressing experience, you may feel overwhelmed and may be unable to process the information. The distressing memory becomes ‘frozen or stuck’ without you adequately processing it to an adaptive resolution and can continue to have a powerful influence on your life many years after the event.

When you try to recall the distressing memory, it can often trigger a re-experience of what you saw, smelt, tasted, heard, or felt (‘as if it’s happening now’). Sometimes, the memories are so distressing that you may avoid thinking about the event in order to avoid the distressing feeling.

EMDR stimulates the frozen or blocked memory/information processing system and it can help you to reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it was what you saw, smelt, tasted, heard, or felt.

Shapiro went on to carry out much research into this area and developed a new way of treatment option – called EMDR.

PTSD was eliminated in 90% of abuse victims within three 90 minute EMDR sessions


What should I expect from an EMDR session?

  1. It’s not just about ‘eyes’! - EMDR is not just about eye movements, it is a comprehensive therapeutic approach with guiding principles, protocols and procedures, targeted at reducing distress in the shortest possible time.
  2. You will learn how to manage difficult emotions - during an EMDR therapy session, your therapist will take a thorough history, and provide you with the necessary resources to manage the processing of your distressing memories. These might include:
    - ‘safe or calm place’ exercises
    - guided visualisation
    - deep muscle relaxation
    - breathing techniques
  3. It’s often short term - while EMDR may access the traumatic memory, it does not dwell on them, and unlike some traditional therapies, the therapy is short term – lasting maybe 3-10 sessions
  4. It’s based on science - EMDR is a focused, ‘present-oriented therapy’ that utilises some of the most recent research in the areas of neurophysiology1.
  5. Your therapist will guide you - using a gentle visual stimulus, for instance moving their hand from side to side in front of your eyes, or other forms of left-right alternating stimulation, your therapist will ask you to focus on the negative and positive thoughts, your feelings, the amount of distress you feel and where you feel it in your body.
  6. Desensitisation - the process is designed and proven to desensitise you to the distressing memory, and more importantly to reprocess the memory so that the associated cognitions become more adaptive.
  7. Time to reflect - after each set of eye movements, your therapist will ask you what came to mind or what you noticed during the eye movements.
  8. It can take time and bravery - you may find EMDR sessions reactivate some features of traumatic memories and this may be scary. However, with time, the distress normally reduces as the memory is processed. So, although EMDR sessions can be difficult, once they are over, health can emerge and you can begin to feel in charge of your life.
  9. And.. relax - relaxation techniques are often taught, allowing patients to better handle difficult feelings in between sessions

I was a bit worried about starting EMDR and what to expect, but it has been completely transformational to my life. I have recommended so many of my friends to EMDR and to Clinical Partners.

Sumayah, Sheffield

How does EMDR work?

EMDR therapy is a complex, integrated from of psychotherapy. There are many theories about how it works2, however, no one really knows precisely how eye movements achieves therapeutic effects.

There are several thoughts as to why it can be so effective for thousands of patients.

  1. One theory is linked to the quality of the distressing memories; distressing memories are often rich in terms of colour, smell, sound and feeling. It is thought that whilst the memories remain so full of sensory detail they are strongly present in our minds and hence can result in hugely distressing and overwhelming flashbacks, panic attacks and anxiety.
  2. It is thought that the EMDR therapy disrupts the way our brain stores the memory, resulting in the quality of the memory reducing.
  3. Others have wondered whether the visual stimulus brings the brain into a state of ‘high alert’. When there is no real threat, the brain is in a flexible and efficient state to process the difficult thoughts that the patient is focusing on, which in turn allows the memories to lose their potency.

Whilst we do not know exactly how EMDR works, we do know that many patients find it hugely effective.

Many patients say they feel more in control of their emotions and better able to ‘master’ thoughts that have plagued, often for years, giving them a great deal of confidence.

The World Health Organisation says that EMDR therapy helps people to reduce vivid, unwanted, repeated collections of traumatic events. It is recommended by organisations like WHO as an effective treatment for trauma, anxiety and other conditions and is effective for children and adults alike.

For some who have tried a variety of other treatments but still feel ‘stuck’, EMDR can really help.

1 www.emdria.omeka.net/items/show/17173

2 www.istss.org/ISTSS_Main/media/Documents/ISTSS_g81.pdf

When you start exploring the issue using EMDR, it may feel really odd to start with. It may be the first time you are truly paying attention to what’s happening inside your body, how you are feeling and what you are thinking and how you are behaving. You may see images of what happened and you may even feel a little bit strange, but do stick with it, because EMDR really can work. It can help you to make better sense of the event and what happened to you and free yourself from the emotional charge connected to it.
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Doctorate, Msc, Bsc

Chartered Counselling Psychologist
London

Dr Jennifer Opoku is an experienced Chartered Counselling Psychologist and currently working for Essex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. She has a Doctorate and Master of Science in Counselling Psychology and a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Dr...

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