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What is EMDR therapy?

Dr Francine Shapiro discovered a link between distressing memories and eye movement in 1987, subsequently dedicating her life’s work to developing EMDR therapy, and it has been a popular psychotherapy treatment for decades since.

But what is it, and how does it work? Let’s take a look.

What does EMDR mean?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. EMDR therapy aims to reduce or remove the negative effect of memories surrounding a traumatic event.

It is most commonly used to treat disorders stemming from a distressing event, such as panic disorders, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMDR therapy can also be used to treat eating disorders, grief, personality disorders, childhood trauma, sleep issues, addiction, chronic illness, phobias, bipolar, and dissociative disorders.

How does it work?

Many talking therapies involve the client talking about a traumatic event and challenging their thoughts and emotions, with the ultimate goal of changing the behaviours that come from the distressing memory.

However, instead, EMDR helps clients to process the memories by assisting the brain in continuing its natural healing process.

After times of trauma, the brain sends signals between the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. This forms a process of alerting the brain to trauma, learning about the stresses involved, and controlling behaviour accordingly.

Despite this being a natural healing process for the brain, oftentimes it will need a little assistance and support to help fully process the traumatic memory – which is where EMDR therapy comes in.

Who can offer EMDR therapy?

As EMDR therapy is a recognised mental health intervention practice, it should only ever be offered by a trained and licensed mental health professional.

If you are a mental health clinician or a trainee, you should therefore undertake the proper EMDR training in the UK before you offer this psychotherapy service to your clients.

This is because EMDR can be used to treat extreme traumas, and is widely considered to be the best treatment for PTSD.

Due to the potential of increased risk in the clients, it is essential that training is undertaken so that the therapist can fully understand the implications of the disorders, and the best way to treat their clients.

What does an EMDR session typically involve?  

Firstly, the mental health professional will aim to find out about the past event causing the trauma, what triggers a response in the present day, and how the client might need to adapt in order to improve their future.

The therapist will then focus on one specific memory to target first. Once this is brought to mind, the client will follow the therapist’s hand with their eyes as it moves across their field of vision. In doing so, the client will be able to process the memory that is being targeted.

These treatments will often run over a course of eight or more sessions, with the eye movement element taking up at least one part of the session.

Whereas talking therapies and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) aim to change the behaviour of the client using prompts from the therapist, EMDR allows the client to accelerate their emotional processes so that they can transform their emotional response.

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