In this article, I explain what EMDR therapy is and how it can help process traumatic memories.
My journey through C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) has led me here: to a unique and comprehensive form of psychotherapy.
When I began therapy a few years ago, I wasn't aware that my mental health difficulties were rooted in trauma - nor had I heard of EMDR. From counselling to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to a psychiatrist assessment, it slowly unravelled that there was something deeper fuelling my distress. As trauma began to show its face, memories began to resurface.
I have arrived at EMDR in order to process the traumatic memories which are one of the main symptoms of C-PTSD. Being relatively new to this type of therapy, I want to explore what EMDR is and what it is used for. In this article, I offer an outline of EMDR, its method and its effectiveness. If you are thinking about EMDR therapy for yourself or would like to read more on this subject, you can find some helpful links at the bottom of the page.
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. Developed over 30 years ago, EMDR is an internationally recognised form of psychotherapy used to help process and recover from past traumatic experiences.
EMDR aims to help process the negative memories, emotions, beliefs and physical sensations associated with traumatic experiences. By helping the brain process traumatic memories and the distress from trauma, EMDR is conventionally used to treat PTSD and C-PTSD.
That said, EMDR can also help with other mental health difficulties which may be rooted in trauma, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and psychosis.
According to the EMDR Association UK, "EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings."
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing takes its name from the powerful technique used in the second stage of trauma processing. After preparing the individual for this second stage, the therapist seeks to access the traumatic memories with bilateral stimulation. According to psychological therapist Dr Justin Havens, this involves stimulating either side of the brain in an alternating left-right fashion, in order to help the individual access the subconscious mind and process both what is stored there and its effects. This can be achieved by either making eye movements from side to side, listening to sounds in headphones that alternate from one ear to the other, or by tapping either side of the body.
How can eye movements help to process traumatic memories?
The EMDR Association UK writes that: "these side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity."
It was in 1987 that psychologist Francine Shapiro first discovered that eye movements appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories. Shapiro suggested that eye movements had a desensitising effect, an assumption which was later empirically verified by a number of successful studies on individuals with traumatic memories.
According to the EMDR Association UK, "the effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day. Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way."
How effective is EMDR?
With its high success rates, EMDR therapy is recommended by the NHS and World Health Organisation for trauma.
Although EMDR may not work for everyone, it can be very successful very quickly in treating traumatic memories and PTSD. According to the EMDR association, it was found to be the most cost-effective psychological treatment for PTSD. Studies have shown that EMDR can significantly decrease PTSD symptoms in just two or three sessions, and that the effect is long-lasting. That said, it can take longer to treat C-PTSD where there are multiple traumatic events or the individual has experienced neglect and mistreatment in childhood.
Studies cited by PTSD UK have shown that:
Up to 90% of single-trauma victims no longer have PTSD after only 3 90-minute sessions.
100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions.
77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD in 12 sessions.
Why did I decide to start EMDR?
After reaching a point in therapy where I had begun to understand my past and reshape my beliefs, long-buried memories of the past resurfaced.
Since trauma therapy is often very exhausting, I decided to take about a six-month break from working on my past in therapy. After plenty of rest and reflection, I am now ready to begin working towards the processing and desensitisation of my memories in order to help lessen the distressing symptoms of PTSD.
EMDR was recommended to me by my CBT therapist as a less painful and perhaps more helpful way of targeting traumatic memories. CBT was a very helpful and necessary step towards uncovering the trauma, without which I wouldn't even be thinking about EMDR. However, now that the past has begun to unravel, I have found that with a specific traumatic memory, talking on its own may not be the best solution.
This is because trying to talk about the event can provoke very strong physical and mental reactions such as dissociation, vomiting, and both physical and emotional pain. Talking with 100% focus on the traumatic memory feels more like re-traumatising myself, whereas EMDR appears to offer a solution which processes and desensitises the memory in order to heal the past pain, rather than re-experience it. EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue, making it a less painful yet still very powerful form of therapy.
Another reason why I have decided to start EMDR is that a lot of my symptoms show up physically in the body, which will be interesting to work through. Connecting in with my body can sometimes trigger traumatic memories or sensations, which I hope to work on in order to lessen both the mental and physical distress of C-PTSD.
How to find an EMDR therapist (UK)
If you or someone you know is suffering from traumatic memories or trauma-related mental health difficulties and might benefit from therapy, you can access EMDR through the NHS by making an appointment with your GP, or you can find a registered EMDR therapist on the EMDR Association UK website:
EMDR Association UK:
You can also search for therapists and counsellors on the BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) website. (Note: if you are looking to start EMDR, make sure your therapist is accredited with EMDR UK and Europe. This means they have proven levels of experience and competency in EMDR therapy beyond the foundation training, and have to prove that they are continuing to keep their skills up to date.)
BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)
EMDR International Association
[Video] EMDR Assocation UK: EMDR Explanation
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