What Is EMDR?


The mind can often heal itself naturally, in the same way as the body does. Much of this natural coping mechanism occurs during sleep, particularly during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Dr Francine Shapiro developed Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) in 1987, utilising this natural process in order to successfully treat Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has been used to effectively treat a wide range of mental health problems.

The evidence base for the effectiveness and efficiency of EMDR, in particular for treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and trauma related problems, is extremely strong. As such, EMDR is recommended in the treatment of PTSD by the UK Department of Health’s National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE).

emdr brain

What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful technique that can help you to overcome the effects of a traumatic experience. When an individual is traumatised, they may experience such strong emotions that their brain becomes overwhelmed. The brain consequently is unable to cope with, or process information as it usually does. Distressing experiences become ‘frozen in time’. Such events are stored in the brain in their original ‘raw’ form and can then be repeatedly remembered as ‘action replays’ or intrusive memories. As a consequence the person repeatedly relives the original unpleasant event(s). Remembering in this way may feel as bad as experiencing it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings don’t change or process. Such memories have a lasting negative effect on the way a person sees themselves, the world and other people. It can have a profoundly negative effect on all aspects of their lives.

EMDR uses eye movements to help desensitise and reprocess the trauma experience more effectively. Desensitisation is the process of reducing the intensity of those feelings, or removing them completely, whereas Reprocessing replaces those feelings with new, more helpful beliefs and associations. 

EMDR has been found to be very effective for a number of emotional and behavioural problems, including:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Depression

  • Stress

  • Complicated grief

  • Self-esteem

  • Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Phobias 

  • Chronic Pain

How Does EMDR Work?

When we move our eyes, we stimulate the right and left hemispheres of the brain, which relate to our emotional and rational sides. This helps the brain to process information more effectively, eliminating negative information and making new associations. A similar outcome can be achieved using alternating hand taps.

EMDR is particularly helpful for those who find it difficult to talk about past events, as it uses largely non-verbal techniques.  It is especially effective with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other symptoms of trauma.

What Does EMDR Involve?

Your EMDR psychotherapist will first establish whether EMDR is the appropriate therapy for your needs. Working together, you will explore past events and identify the triggers that are causing your distress.

During EMDR, eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated by asking you to watch the therapist’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field (or through light tapping on your hands or knees.)  With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. The inking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.

Each session will help you to learn how to manage your feelings, so that you can overcome the negative triggers and lessen the impact of the past trauma.

During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. It is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time.  Throughout the EMDR session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.