EMDR works by helping the brain to process traumatic memories. When something terrible happens to us, it is stored in our brain in a different way to our day to day memories. It can pop into our heads when we’re least expecting it, or sometimes we might feel like we’re going through the experience again. EMDR therapy helps to make the memory less upsetting, and more like just another part of our life story.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, a psychotherapy which was started by American psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s. She noticed as she was walking through a park that when she moved her eyes from side to side her negative emotions seemed to dissipate. She went home and tried it on other people. She found that eye movements whilst thinking about traumatic memories had the same effect on others. She started doing research into this effect, and developed EMDR.
Since then, the evidence for EMDR has grown to the point where it is recommended in the NICE guidelines for those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s used across the health service and by psychologists and psychotherapists across the world.
Katy was shaking and tearful the first time we met. She just couldn’t understand what had happened to her life. Everything had been going so well, and then she’d been knocked off her bicycle last year. Even though she wasn’t badly hurt, ever since she had images pop into her head of a lorry about to collide with her.
The flashbacks would come out of the blue, she might be walking along the road and suddenly she’d feel like it was happening again. She’d hear the noise of the impact and re-experience the pain she felt as she hit the road.
At night she had nightmares about crashes. Her life was rapidly unravelling. She was exhausted and irritable, and she couldn’t get back on her bicycle without feeling panicky. She was on the verge of losing her job and her family had had enough of her snapping at them.
We are all able to process traumatic events. When something awful happens, at first it’s normal to feel very disturbed by it. Over time our brains make sense of what happened, integrating it into the story of our lives. We do this by talking to others, by thinking about what happened and making sense of why it might have been that way.
When a trauma is processed, we can still remember it but it feels like it is in the past. We don’t feel the emotions of the time again.
Unprocessed traumatic memories, in contrast, are raw. These are the memories which make us cry or feel scared, just thinking about them. Unprocessed memories are stored alongside our experiences of the time. Emotions, body sensations, they’re all there. And they all get triggered when we think about what happened. Even if we don’t want to think about it.
That’s why Katy felt so panicky every time she tried to get onto her bike. Rationally she knew that the accident was in the past, but emotionally her brain was reacting as if she was still in danger.
When Katy came to see me, I explained that her brain had the capacity to process the memory of the accident and that EMDR would help her do just that.
I asked Katy to think about the worst moment. She remembered an instant just before she was hit by the lorry. She’d thought she was going to die. Just thinking about it brought a rush of feelings through her body. She started sweating and her heart started beating fast. She then followed my fingers with her eyes, and gradually started to feel less distressed about the memory.
There are several theories as to how EMDR works. One is that the eye movements mimic the movements during REM sleep, and that these are important in processing memories. Another is that the eye movements tax our working memory, and that this changes how we relate to the memory of the event.
It turns out that eye movements aren’t the only way to have this effect, and some EMDR therapists will use alternate hand tapping, buzzers, or even headphones with clicks in alternate ears.
Katy needed eight sessions of therapy. The first few were for assessment and preparation. Katy started doing trauma processing in her third session. By the sixth session she was back on her bike and by the eighth session her nightmares were gone.
Katy had only had one major traumatic event in her life. For her, EMDR was quite straightforward. Many people have multiple traumatic events, and then EMDR will take longer.
It’s not easy remembering the worst moments in your life. If you are someone who has had lots of trauma then your EMDR therapist will spend time helping you develop coping skills before you start trauma processing. If your life is quite unstable, for example if you have an ongoing court case or you are homeless, then an EMDR therapist may say that now is not the time to try trauma processing.
EMDR therapy is particularly useful when your memory feels like it’s held in your body. People sometimes say that they know rationally that they’re safe now, but that they still feel unsafe. Sometimes people don’t even have a visual memory of what happened, but they still feel intense emotions in their body.
That’s where EMDR comes into its own. It helps people harness their brain’s natural capacity for healing, putting those feelings where they belong. In the past. In this way EMDR therapy lets you move confidently towards your future.
Clinical psychologist Naomi Fisher is an experienced EMDR consultant offering EMDR Zoom appointments. Book an appointment with Naomi online from wherever you are in the world here.