Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy is used for people suffering with recurring memories and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is used to treat a range of complex trauma and disociative disorders. It’s widely used to treat the traumatic emotions and feelings attached to significant memories that have not been properly processed by the brain. Here’s all you need to know about how it works.
EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that is used to diminish negative thoughts and feelings associated with a certain memory, using rapid eye movement. The aim is to imitate the natural process of REM sleep to reprocess memories. After a successful EMDR session, the patient should feel less negative effects from the thought of the incident, although they will not forget that the incident that took place.
During sleep the body falls into REM periods at different intervals, using rapid eye movements to process any dreams or significant incidents that occurred during the day. Have you ever sat on a train with someone who is looking out of the window? Did you notice how quickly their eyes move as they try to focus on different objects outside the train as it’s moving? This is the exact same movement of the eyes during REM sleep.
Just let me cry a little bit longer.
EMDR adopts this eye movement to process the negative memory and “re-wire” the brains response to it. After several sessions talking to the therapist about the incident(s) that create negative responses, the sessions move on to confront the brains’ responses. The therapist will ask the patient to think right back to the moment the incident took place, noticing any smells, sounds or significant feelings at that time. For example, a traumatic experience could have taken place while the sun was out on a summers day, with the sound of an ice cream van approaching and lots of background noise of children and nature. It is important for the patient to focus on these sounds, feelings and sensations as this opens the door to the memory.
Once the origins of the memory have been sourced, the therapist moves their fingers back and forth at a rapid speed in front of the patients eyes, asking them to follow this movement with their eyes only – no head movement. For me, this invoked a massive negative reaction and caused me to relive those awful feelings and thoughts as if I had been taken back in time and exposed to the traumatic situation again. This is a perfectly natural response to reliving those memories, and after talking about how I felt and what I was thinking, we resumed the eye movement again. As the session progresses, the patient is exposed to different feelings and sensations as the brain begins to “re-wire” itself and respond to the memory in a different way. Almost as if the brain begins to understand that the situation maybe wasn’t as scary as it thought, and that in actual fact it can be overcome.
My therapist likens the therapy to taking a train journey through your memories, watching them go by out of the window and stopping every now and then at a station to discuss how you feel and what you are thinking. You then get back on the train and continue with the journey.
How this is actually working is something that has been heavily debated by different professionals; some insist that this therapy just does not work and there are others who live by it. The aim of the therapy is to process memories that the brain neglected to process during REM sleep some time ago, but the person is awake and is being guided through the entire process. It is the lack of processing that forces the person to see disturbing material in such a distressing way, therefore this therapy aims to make them see this material in a new and less distressing way.
I highly recommend this therapy as an effective way of treating symptoms of PTSD and other disociative disorders, when combined with SSRI’s and regular check ups with the GP. There are many websites and books that follow the topic of EMDR and are accessible to anyone who is interested in reading up on the therapy.