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What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (more commonly known as EMDR), is a form of psychotherapy developed in the 1980’s  by American psychologist Francine Shapiro.  While walking in a park, Shapiro made a chance observation that certain eye movements appeared to reduce the negative emotion associated with her own traumatic memories. When she experimented, she found that others also exhibited a similar response to eye movements. After further study and experimentation, EMDR was developed. 

EMDR is a means of processing distressing experiences.  By activating the disturbing memory and processing its component parts (emotions, thoughts, sensory impressions and physical senations) EMDR seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.  It utilises the natural healing ability of the body.  In so doing the traumatic memories appear  to lose their intensity, become less distressing and resemble more ordinary memories.

How does EMDR work?

In order to understand how EMDR works we must firstly gain an understanding of what happens when we become traumatised. 


During non-traumatic events our mind and body manages and processes the experience spontaneously. Information is pieced together in a coherent story and stored as a memory.  However when something out of the ordinary occurs (for example a road traffic collision, physical assault) or an individual is  repeatedly subject to distress (for example, childhood abuse) our natural coping mechanisms can become overloaded.  This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining “frozen” or stuck in our brain and therefore being unprocessed.  They are prevented from moving into our long term storage and becoming a memory.

As a consequence, following the event, we can commonly experience what is termed as a re-living of the trauma.  This will feel very different from just remembering the event, as the information we experience is like raw data.  This can be in the form of an intrusive image or flashback and can give us the feeling of being back in the event, often hearing the sounds, sensing the smells and experiencing the fear as though "we were back there".  Whilst often uncomfortable and distressing this is an essential part of allowing the brain to process the event and be able to piece it together and file it away as a memory. 

Sometimes the memories are so distressing that the person tries to avoid thinking about the traumatic event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.  This avoidance strategy, whilst understandable, further reinforces the lack of processing. 

Because the event is not processed it is prevented from becoming a memory and therefore remains a current problem, rather than one that’s in the past.  Current situations or events that remind us of the original trauma, (eg. a car driving too close, someone approaching resembling the perpetrator of the assault) can trigger us to have intrusive images and recollections (or sometimes flashbacks), which means we relive and re-experience the emotions, physical sensations, sensory impressions experienced at the time. 


Sometimes whilst the incident itself may feel like a distant memory the painful feelings of anxiety, panic, despair, anger are continually triggered in the present.  Our ability to live and be in the present, learning from new experiences and updating our memories, compromised and inhibited.

EMDR is a Psychological Therapy that offers the individual an opportunity to revisit and reprocess the trauma so that it can be experienced in a different and more functional way.  Based on the premise that during sleep (especially rapid eye movement – REM - sleep) our mind processes our days events and heals itself, Shapiro developed a means of replicating eye movements similar to those during REM sleep to facilitate this healing process. 

EMDR requires that the distressing event is recalled whilst receiving bilateral sensory input, often in the form of side to side eye movements, although sometimes hand tapping and auditory tones.  It is the action of watching the therapists fingers moving backwards and forwards across the clients visual field which stimulates the opening of this blocked information processing system, thus processing the experience and enabling it to become a memory. 

With repeated sets of eye movements the client will notice changes: the image may change or disappear, different aspects of the experience may surface, the emotion may change, other memories may surface, thoughts and physical sensations may alter.  As the processing takes place the memory will often lose its painful intensity, becoming simply a neutral memory of an event from the past, no longer like raw data.  Other associated memories can heal simultaneously, it is this linking of related memories which can lead to dramatic and rapid improvements in many aspects of  the clients life.

What difficulties can EMDR treat?

EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment, the validity and reliability of which has been established by rigorous research. 


Nineteen controlled studies have been undertaken into the efficacy of EMDR making it the most comprehensively researched method in the treatment of trauma (more details on and 


It has also been recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the  World Health Organisation (WHO) as an effective treatment for P.T.S.D.


Furthermore EMDR has also been successfully used to treat:


  • Anxiety and panic attacks

  • Phobias

  • Depression

  • Self esteem and performance anxiety

  • Stress

  • Sleep problems

  • Addictions

  • Complicated grief, and

  • Pain relief

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