Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful psychological therapy that helps people to heal from the impact of traumatic or disturbing life events. EMDR has received a lot of attention for helping millions of people heal from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from traumatic events such as rape, abuse, road traffic accidents and combat; however, EMDR can also help people who are experiencing distress resulting from other disturbing events.
How does EMDR work?
No one really knows how any form of psychotherapy works in the brain. However, we do know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it normally does. A distressing event becomes frozen in time; remembering the trauma may feel as bad as actually experiencing it, because the images, sounds, smells, and feeling haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect which interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.
Your brain’s Adaptive Information Processing System
EMDR seems to activate the brain’s inherent adaptive information processing system, enabling it to integrate the information that got stuck at the time of the distressing event. EMDR does not erase the memory, but reduces the emotional charge, so that the person can remember the event without becoming overwhelmed. Often during EMDR, the person will gain helpful insights, and at the end of successful EMDR therapy, will feel lighter, freer and more whole.
Origins and credentials
EMDR was developed by an American clinical psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s. As a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute, she published the first research data to support the benefits of the therapy in the 1989. Since then a wealth of research has been conducted demonstrating its benefits in treating psychological trauma arising from experiences as diverse as war related experiences, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, natural disaster, assault, surgical trauma, road traffic accidents and workplace accidents.
Today, approximately 20 controlled studies have investigated the effects of EMDR. These studies have consistently found that EMDR effectively decreases/eliminates the symptoms of past traumatic stress for the majority of clients.
Dr Shapiro discusses the current research evidence for EMDR in the New York Times (March 2012). You can read the article here.