Mental health is very much an uneven playing ground in terms of what conditions respond best to individual approaches and the relative ease with which it’s possible to make a full recovery. For some behavioural issues, there might be a reasonably straight forward and linear path to follow. You can largely correct most behaviours within a short series of cognitive behavioural therapy sessions. But when it comes to trauma-based conditions, the way hasn’t always been quite as clear. Conditions such a post-traumatic stress disorder, in particular, have been difficult to treat with conventional psychotherapeutic techniques.
Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed in response to the challenge of treating trauma-based conditions by psychologist in Francine Shapiro in 1987. And since then has become a widely accepted part of the psychological cannon, used to treat people suffering from anxiety, panic disorders, PTSD and other traumas.
What is EMDR?
To offer the simplest explanation, EMDR is a psychotherapeutic technique that focuses on sensory inputs relating mostly to eye movement that assist you in recovering from trauma. And although its approach is largely unique, it does draw on some of the concepts of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). At its core, EMDR is used to facilitate the unblocking of emotional processes that have become stunted by any past traumatic experiences. Once you have cleared these emotional pathways, you can then move forward by reprogramming the mind with more positive mental and emotional thought-constructs. By doing this, you’re able to successfully overcome both the fear and pain associated with your emotional distress. You free yourself of the triggers that are the ruling factor of your behaviour.
How Does EMDR Actually Work?
EMDR works by helping you reprocess traumatic events and information until it no longer affects you or serves a disruptive force in your life. It’s broken down into eight distinct phases. Initially, you will be asked to identify a disruptive memory and establish a negative you hold about yourself that it has caused. A prime example is in abuse where the individual in question may have developed the belief that they deserved it. Once identified, this belief is then ‘reprocessed,’ and replaced with a more beneficial thought, such as, ‘I love myself, and I am deserving of a happy life.’ You are then taken through a process of identifying all bodily sensations and emotions that go along with this negative memory that you’re working through.
You do this while focusing on an external motion that creates bilateral eye movement. And it is most commonly achieved by watching you therapist move two fingers in rhythmic – almost hypnotic fashion. At intervening periods, you will be asked how you feel. This continues until you no longer find the memory to be a disruptive influence.
A Step-by-Step Breakdown of EMDR
EMDR involves eight phases of treatment. Here is a breakdown of how the process works in a step-by-step account.
Phase 1 (History Taking): This involves a full and complete taking of your personal circumstances that have led to you to seeking therapy. The emphasis will be largely focused on your painful memories, events or other experiences that are causing your distress, as well as anything else that is currently causing you to feel stress. From here, you will develop a treatment plan with your therapist that is tailored to your individual needs.
Phase 2 (Preparation): During this phase, you’ll be helped with some coping exercises by your therapist to assist you in dealing with any stress and anxiety you may be experiencing.
Phases 3-6 (Desensitisation, Installation, Body Scan)
This is where the majority of the actual work of the session is done.
- You will first choose a target with your therapist. i.e. one of the memories, event or experiences you detailed in phase one.
- Next, with your eyes closed, you describe the visual picture you have of this event in your mind, as well as how it makes you feel both emotionally and physically – detailing any areas on the body where the emotion may be shoring up.
- You will then be asked to detail both a positive and a negative belief relating to this image. A negative belief that is currently affecting you and a positive belief you wish to replace it with.
- You’ll then be asked to rate both of these beliefs being asked how true each statement is for you.
- The EMDR bilateral eye movements with then begin, during which you’ll be asked to comment again how true each of these statements is for you until the positive statement is the predominant thought-process.
Phase 7 (Closure): You will then be taken to a phase of closure, so you’re completely dissociated from the pain that you were experiencing, and will discuss the next positive steps to take in your treatment program.
Phase 8 (Re-evaluation): You will then discuss your progress with your therapist and what else you might need to work on that you identified during phase one. You will assess your treatment goals, and make any necessary adjustments.
The Multiple Applications and Benefits of EMDR
While much of the research associated with EMDR is concerned with the benefits it has for people who suffer from PTSD, there has been also been substantial evidence that it can aid in more than just trauma-based conditions.
Some of the applications include it being used to treat:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)
- Chronic Pain and Phantom Pain (Phantom Limb Syndrome)
- Eating Disorders
- Panic Attacks
- Psychotic Symptoms
- Self Esteem
At present, there is only preliminary research that supports the application of EMDR for psychotic issues and chronic pain. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is ineffective, simply that the evidence is quite there to fully support it yet.