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Mel B is watching flashing lights to help with trauma. But does EMDR therapy really work? (Emine Saner The Guardian 10 Sept 2018) – So does EMDR hack it

Mel B is watching flashing lights to help with trauma. But does EMDR therapy really work? (Emine Saner The Guardian 10 Sept 2018) – So does EMDR hack it

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late 2016, Ben had a breakdown, triggered by someone getting too close
to him on a crowded train. It brought on vivid flashbacks of a severe
childhood trauma 30 years ago. Until then he had lived a successful life
– he had done well at school, had a good career and was married with a
family. Referred to a trauma clinic at his local hospital, Ben started a
psychotherapy treatment, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing
(EMDR) earlier this year. It sounded, he says: “like witchcraft. How can
this possibly work? They sit you in front of flashing lights and it
makes you better? It sounds like alchemy.”

EMDR was recently highlighted by the pop singer Mel B, who is said to be undergoing the therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Talking about her diagnosis, a condition she had been using sex and
alcohol to self-treat, she said: “I am still struggling but if I can
shine a light on the issue of pain, PTSD and the things men and women do
to mask it, I will do”. Of the EMDR, she said: “So far, it’s really
helping me.”

EMDR works, says Robin Logie, clinical psychologist and former
president of the EMDR Association, by helping the brain to process
traumatic memories – it is mainly used as a treatment for PTSD, but can
be used for depression, anxiety, addiction and phobias. “The way we do
that is to get the person to think about a particular moment. For
example, with a road traffic accident – it could be the moment just
before you’re hit. We ask them to describe what negative belief they
have about themselves.” It could be something like: ‘I’m not safe.’” We
ask what emotion seems to go with that and where they feel it in their

While the person is doing all this, they are asked to move their eyes
from side to side – this could be by following the therapist’s finger,
or following flashing lights. It can also be done by holding a device in
each hand, which pulses alternately. Each set could be repeated 20 or
30 times in each session. “The memory starts to become less
distressing,” he says. “It transforms it from a memory that previously
made you feel anxious or scared, into a memory that is like any other
that wouldn’t normally produce an emotional response. People start to be
more rational about it: ‘I wasn’t in a safe situation then, but I’m
safe now.’”

In the early stages of treatment, says Ben: “It was like being in the
event. It’s like a kind of time travel. The whole EMDR process is like a
controlled flashback – you’re aware that you’re here and now, but you
also feel like you’re in the body from then and re-experiencing as then.
I was not prepared for the physical, visceral nature of reliving the
experience. I would be seeing things, smelling things. I felt this
pressure across my front and it was unnerving.”

He says he felt like a ventriloquist’s dummy “because the words I was
using to describe [my experiences] were children’s words. It was like
the child, the person who experienced the trauma, was using me as a

As the treatment went on, the memories became more and more vivid and
detailed. It has, unsurprisingly, been a difficult process to go
through, and Ben’s mental health seemed to get worse before it started
to get better. He is still going through treatment. “It’s a process I
have found genuinely transformative,” he says.

EMDR was discovered by accident in the late 80s by an American
psychologist, Francine Shapiro, who noticed that her eye movements,
while looking at things on a walk through a park, appeared to reduce
negative emotions. It used to be considered controversial but that is
now an outdated view, says Melanie Temple, consultant psychiatrist and
EMDR consultant (it is approved for use by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).

One of the problems for EMDR is that nobody can explain exactly how
it works – one theory is that the eye movements mimic the
rapid-eye-movement phase of sleep, which is when the day’s events are
processed. “We understand it works on the information-processing models
within the brain, but we don’t know exactly how,” says Temple. “But then
we don’t know exactly how cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) works.
It’s really the same for all therapies.”

Not everyone is ready for EMDR. “If someone has had a simple one-off
trauma, such as an accident, in their adult life, you don’t need to do a
lot of preparation, but we also work with people who have multiple
traumas going back to early childhood,” says Logie. “With people like
that you have to do more preparation and the therapy will last longer.”
Preparing someone to undergo EMDR can include teaching them relaxation
techniques, and strengthening the support structures in their lives.

If not properly used, says Claudia Herbert, clinical psychologist and
managing director of the Oxford Development Centre and author of Overcoming Traumatic Stress:
“Any type of therapy can be re-traumatising. It has to be used by
someone who is properly trained and experienced to know when to use it
and not to use it.” It wouldn’t be used with someone who was dissociated
– one symptom of PTSD – where they are not “grounded” in their body, or
feel disoriented. “We would have to work with the dissociation first
before we work with EMDR.”

For Katherine Gilmartin, an artist and family mental health activist,
diagnosed with complex PTSD as a result of childhood abuse, EMDR
couldn’t begin immediately. “I was asked to think of somewhere I’d felt
safe in the past. There was nothing,” she says. “So I had to make one.”
She says EMDR, which she had once a week for more than six months, was
“physically exhausting. The heightened experience of being in those
traumatic memories whirls everything up and nightmares occur.”

Was it difficult to go through? “Yes, but I felt in control [when]
ordinarily I didn’t feel in control. It is hard work and [you have to
be] open to it. It’s not a fix-all and you have to trust the person you
are doing it with.” For her, it has made an improvement. “Different
places, or really silly things, which could be quite triggering are no
longer a problem. I’m able to recognise and understand my feelings
around whatever the thing is.” These tend to be things she recognises
from childhood – once, she was in a department store and saw a
houseplant she hadn’t seen for decades. “I was taken right back to being
10. I couldn’t be anywhere near it and I walked out of the shop.” That
sort of thing, she says, wouldn’t happen now.

Temple used to work for the military where EMDR is a standard therapy
for people suffering PTSD; she now practises it for the NHS. Where EMDR
may have the edge, she says, is that it: “Suits a lot of people because
unlike CBT [which is also offered as treatment for trauma], it doesn’t
have homework. EMDR is very well-established now [and is] equally
offered alongside trauma-focused CBT because one size doesn’t fit all.
If one doesn’t suit them, then they can use something different, so they
don’t feel that they’re not treatable.”

Although it can be powerful and effective, people shouldn’t expect a
magical quick fix, she says. Ben has had more than 30 sessions and does
not know when he will stop. “It’s had a hugely beneficial effect,” he
says. Although the two or three days after each session are, he says, a
“write-off”, he has been able to go back to work part-time. “I have
moved from being this ventriloquist’s dummy for the child inside, to
being an adult looking at what was happening; being really sad and upset
and angry about it, but having a natural emotional reaction, rather
than feeling the distress of it happening to me.”

the author of this blog is Stuart Alderton.  More about me here