Oct 20, 2021, 4 min read
Earlier this year, Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey created The Me You Can’t See, a documentary series about mental health and emotional wellbeing. As part of the programme, Harry revealed that he had undergone EMDR therapy to help him process his mother’s death.
What is EMDR therapy, who can it help and what does it involve exactly?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. This form of therapy is a well-established psychotherapy treatment that aims to reduce anxiety and the distressing emotions associated with traumatic memories. Since Californian psychotherapist Francine Shapiro developed the treatment back in 1987, it has steadily grown in popularity.
EMDR typically spans over 6 to 12 sessions, taking place either once or twice a week. A trained psychologist asks a client to imagine or remember distressing scenarios during the treatment while directing their eye movements from side to side. It involves eight steps.
First, the therapist takes a complete history from their client and works with the client to assess their needs and create a treatment plan.
Next, the therapist introduces and explains EMDR and the eye movement technique. They also cover relaxation techniques.
During this third phase of EMDR, the therapist and client work together to activate a traumatic memory. This could be anything from a recent car crash, a phobic experience, or something that happened in childhood. The client will identify the negative emotions and beliefs they associate with this memory.
Now the client will hold the traumatic memory in mind while following specific eye movements. The client will be asked to follow the therapist’s finger as it moves back and forth. Alternatively, a therapist may ask clients to listen to specific sounds or tap their knees in a particular pattern. These actions all help to engage the same parts of the brain.
Now the therapist supports their client to replace a negative thought with a more adequate alternative.
Once more, the client brings the traumatic memory to mind and assesses their physical response. If the client experiences no distress from the memory, the therapist will move onto the penultimate stage of the process. If any distress persists, the therapist and client go back to step four.
This stage is the end of the session. If the client has not wholly processed the targeted memory, the therapist would give the client homework — specific relaxation techniques that will help to improve wellbeing until the following session.
Each new session begins with a re-evaluation. The therapist and client assess the progress made during the previous session and identify targets for the session in progress.
So how can EMDR help with anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health conditions?
While it’s clear that EMDR works when treating PTSD — and there is growing evidence that we can use it to treat anxiety and other mental health conditions — scientists are still working to fully understand why and how.
The side to side eye movements stimulate either side of the brain, helping to access painful memories that the mind tries to block. This bilateral stimulation is thought to allow processing the emotion-laden memory more widely, thus reducing intrusions from the memory in day to day life.
Because one focuses on both the traumatic event and the eye movements, the dual attention is also thought to distract from the emotional value of the traumatic memory. This helps one psychologically distance from their emotional reaction to it and allow the memory to begin being processed. Ultimately, the memory becomes integrated with the rest of the memories and reframed, affecting one less in their day to day life as a result.
Another theory is that clients feel more in control of their emotions when guided through the sensations, images, and feelings associated with painful memories.
According to Adam Getty, an EMDR anxiety and trauma specialist,
“One of the appeals of EMDR is that it can be less invasive than other psychotherapies and does not require the individual to have an in-depth conversation about the event. When someone is unable to process an event, it becomes stuck in a state-specific form. The brain is unable to connect to other memory networks that contain adaptive meanings. Through EMDR, your brain waves become synchronised. This helps you process the memory and allows it to be encoded into existing memory networks.”
While the exact mechanisms are still unknown, EMDR has helped many people — Prince Harry included — process trauma and overcome anxiety.
EMDR doesn’t erase traumatic events from memory. But in successful cases, the distress and any physical stress responses linked with that memory are resolved.
Clients no longer feel overwhelmed or unable to escape negative memories, and, as a result, their mental health and emotional wellbeing improve.
Are you interested in learning more about EMDR for anxiety or trauma? Find a specialist and book therapy sessions at a time and place to suit you. Our EMDR practitioners include Adam Getty, Lee-Anne Simmons and Monika Gos.