What is EMDR
EMDR is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. A bit of a mouthful, but it’s simply a psychotherapeutic tool for working with distressing memories.
Is it an approved treatment?
It is approved by NICE here in the UK (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) and the American Psychological Association who both recommend EMDR for working with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD (it was found to be particularly effective in the 1980s onwards for working with military personnel returning from active duty).
Does that mean EMDR is only useful for “huge” events like a car crash or an assault?
No - though it is certainly highly effective for those experiences. Psychologically we differentiate shock trauma from developmental trauma. Developmental trauma refers to repeated, almost casual moments in our development when we were, for example, misunderstood by those who cared for us, bullied or humiliated. If we experience events like these very occasionally then they rarely cause us issues. But if they happen repeatedly, these ‘small t’s’ can be hugely damaging. We might not realise their effect because, viewed in isolation, they may appear small. But, as in the case of shock trauma, they may be affecting our lives out of awareness. We have all probably been traumatised in our lives to an extent. We may not realise it because it became normal part of our growing up.
How does it work?
If someone asks us what we did yesterday, we might talk about going to work or meeting someone for a coffee and, provided nothing overtly shocking happened, we remember it easily, it is readily available to us and it doesn’t come with any uncomfortable feelings. But in the case of a difficult experience, we might not want to recall it. It becomes locked away in its raw, unprocessed state. In fact, it’s stored in a completely different part of the brain, the part more associated with our primitive animal selves. This means we never get the opportunity to process the memory, or adapt it from the perspective of where we are today. It remains locked in time along with any difficult feelings associated with it. These traumatic memories may need some help to become processed, and EMDR is one way to do this because, even though locked away, they still have a huge influence on our everyday lives and the decisions we take. The eye movements we use in EMDR seem to help unlock the nervous system and allow our brains to do the processing. It’s been suggested that it’s similar to the process of REM sleep.
Does it work online?
Yes. I use a technology to provide the eye movement stimulus in the same way as if you were watching my hand moving in front of you in the same room (the normal EMDR process). Also, the ‘E’ in ‘EMDR’ is slightly misleading. More often these days we talk about BLS or bilateral stimulation. As long there is a left and right movement or stimulation, it is still effective. For example you may follow me on the screen tapping right and left or we can even use sound. The most important thing for us to remember is that we are simply allowing our own brain the opportunity of healing itself. We’re just creating the right environment. You will always be the one in control.
Why and how EMDR works
A fun animated explanation of EMDR
The EMDR Association
My training organisation