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About EMDR Generally

Discovered by Francine Shaprio in 1987, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, or EMDR therapy, was developed to help individuals process negative thoughts and memories thus freeing themselves from the effects of trauma. She formulated an eight-phase method to standardise and teach her method which she described in her 1995 book  Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures.


Since then a great deal of research has been done on EMDR therapy and its use in the treatment of psychological trauma. As a result, EMDR is now a recommended trauma treatment in many national and international guidelines, for example, those of the World Health Organisation, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, the American Psychiatric Association, the UK Psychological Trauma Society, and the guidelines of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which inform and guide healthcare services provided through the NHS.

So what happens in EMDR?

Following an initial consultation with the client on the focus of the EMDR session processing is achieved by working with images, sounds, smells and any other stimuli that relate to the trauma.

Bilateral stimulation, that is the movement of the eyes, is achieved by following the movement of lights on an LED display moving two and fro (or traditionally by following the therapists’ fingers). This is thought to enable a traumatic memory to be processed and stored into memory. The incident is recalled but without the associated trauma.

In EMDR therapy, it is not necessary to describe in detail to the therapist  the traumatic event being worked with.  This is an important difference from some other forms of trauma-focused treatments. If the trauma is especially difficult to discuss it is still possible to use an EMDR session to work with it, although this may limit the full effectiveness of the therapy.

When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and, therefore, their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen. When a person recalls the distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted, thought or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes the memories are so distressing that the person tries to avoid thinking about the distressing event to avoid experiencing the distressing feelings.

Distressing memories come to mind when something reminds them of the distressing event, or sometimes the memories just seem to just pop into mind without warning. The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.  In the process the memories seem to lose their intensity, so they become less distressing and seem more like ‘ordinary’ memories.

The effect is believed to be similar to that which occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side. It may also be that getting the client to concentrate on left-right stimulation whilst thinking of the distressing memory stops the brain from becoming overwhelmed and allowing the distressing aspects to be processed.  EMDR helps reduce the distress of all the different kinds of memories, whether it is images, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, thoughts or belief

So how long is it going to take?

EMDR is designed as a short-term therapy which would usually be effective between six, twelve or sixteen sessions, for single event traumas. Where there is complex trauma it could take considerably longer. Sessions are usually at a frequency of once or twice a week to allow time for processing between sessions. Individual sessions may be 50-90 minutes long, which can be discussed at the assessment stage. EMDR can, however, be embedded in a longer term, open-ended therapy, to be used in addition to other appropriate techniques.


For clients who are already working with a counsellor who does not practise EMDR, it is possible to see an EMDR therapist on a short-term basis to address a particular issue, and then return to one’s regular counsellor. This would, of course, need to be agreed with the client and both therapists beforehand. 



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