This evidenced-based psychotherapy is internationally recognized as ﬁrst-line treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and has been heavily researched with over 20 controlled studies since 1989 showing that with EMDR the symptoms of PTSD are decreased or eliminated for most patients.
PTSD may develop as a consequence of exposure to life-threatening traumatic events such as armed hold ups; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; medical traumas; natural disasters; accidents; or conflict. It is characterised by reexperiencing, hyperarousal, and avoidance symptoms.
How EMDR works, in a nutshell
EMDR allows a traumatic memory to be released, desensitized, processed, and resolved. It involves an eight-phase treatment protocol, guided by Shapiro’s Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, which carefully prepares the patient to safely connect with all elements of their memory—sensory, cognitive, somatic, and emotional components. Bilateral stimulation and dual attention is maintained throughout, hence the patient has one foot in the trauma (past) and one foot in the present, with the understanding they are processing an old memory, and not reliving the trauma.
The bilateral stimulation is thought to reactivate the trauma survivor’s natural information processing, thought imbalanced at the time of the trauma and thus impeding integration of the traumatic experience into memory. The bilateral stimulation (e.g. eye movements) is used until the memory becomes less disturbing and is associated with a positive thought and belief the patient has about themselves.
The number of EMDR sessions required depends solely on the individual’s ability to process. Reduction is possible if the patient has been prepared with psychoeducation plus grounding, self-soothing, and emotional regulation exercises, often part of the early phases of EMDR treatment.
The end result
The trauma survivor has reduced PTSD symptoms, and the unpleasant emotional charge and accompanying negative somatic sensations are removed.
The trauma image, once vivid, now appears foggy or distant with the trauma memory being perceived and felt as a historical rather than current event. This “recalibration” of the brain and body removes the persistent sense of danger the trauma survivor experiences.
For the future
EMDR is being evaluated for Acute Stress, Substance Use, OCD, Phobias, Psychosis, Depression, Anxiety, Personality disorders, Complicated Grief, Chronic Pain, Eating Disorders and Disturbing Memories.
For effective use in children, modified EMDR protocols are necessary.
Finding the right EMDR practitioner
EMDR is an advanced psychotherapy requiring a high level of skill. A mental health background helps so that psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, counsellors and mental health nurses who have done EMDR training are your first port of call. Certified EMDR therapists are located at: https://emdraa.org/find-an-emdr-therapist/
EMDR is endorsed by over five reputable international organisations that include the National Health and Medical Research Council (2007) and the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense (2004).