Monday, 18 February 2013

Trauma Therapy: Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

If you struggle with painful memories from a past trauma, and are considering what types of therapy might be most useful, let me be your guinea pig today and tell you about Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR).

In a nutshell, EMDR basically aims to help you reprocess memories of past traumatic events that your brain has failed to properly process. 

The hippocampus is an organ in the brain that deals with storing emotional memory.  When a traumatic experience happens to a person, the logic and reasoning centres of their brain are overwhelmed, so the hippocampus fails to communicate with them effectively to process the memory of that event.  

This can result in a person experiencing severe distress when remembering this trauma, and sometimes finding they relive the experience as though it were occurring in the present, because the memory has not been properly stored by the brain as a (sometimes very distant) past event.

The purpose of EMDR is to reprocess traumatic memories by manually involving both the emotion side of the brain and the logic side of the brain, given that they previously may not have been working together, to properly place that memory in the past.

During EMDR, I was guided to remember the traumatic memories that I continue to find distressing by bringing into conscious awareness the memories themselves, as well as the thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations that come with them.  

This means that if you are considering EMDR, you need to be willing to experience reliving a distressing memory through recalling it in detail.  Your therapist should help you to come up with a safe place to use if you need it.

This is quickly followed by having to follow the moving fingers of the therapist rapidly for a brief period of around 30 seconds.  And I mean, RAPIDLY.  It was actually a little bit hard to keep up at times!

It is possible for this therapy to be conducted using other external prompts, like sound or touch, but prompted eye movement is usually the most common and most accessible for the majority of patients.

The process produces a distinctive and naturally occurring pattern of electrical activity in the brain, which causes the stored trauma memory to quickly change.

During EMDR the therapist is not meant to talk or offer suggestions.  I was not asked to change any aspect of the memory, but just to notice the experience.  

At the end of each set of eye movements I was asked to report how I was feeling.  I found the emotional and bodily sensations reduced in intensity quite consistently during the whole process.  Sometimes the physical symptoms would change or come back a little bit, but then further "rounds" of eye movement helped those feelings subside again.

The next step is to associate a more useful thought to the now more distant trauma memory.  The EMDR process is complete when the new perspective feels true even when the old memory is recalled.  For me, I worked on accepting ideas that "I did the best I could" and that "I was only a child" to help me experience these memories in a less distressing way, as previously I had been experiencing strong feelings of shame, self-blame and guilt.

It's apparently common to feel tired after an EMDR session, and this was definitely true for me.  I recommend scheduling in time for rest or something soothing afterward.

Whilst EMDR sounds simple (and let's be honest, a little bit like hocus pocus!) there are many important procedural steps for the therapist to follow.  It actually takes over 50 hours of training and supervision to fully train an EMDR therapist.

EMDR can be effective whether it is conducted once or over a series of sessions, depending on the patient's needs.  I am currently approaching my fourth session.

Overall, I can say I do recommend it as being very useful.


  1. “EMDR can be effective whether it is conducted once or over a series of sessions, depending on the patient's needs.” – Like any other therapies, the constant therapy sessions will eventually lead to your healing. They don’t guarantee instant results, but the long process can make you feel better overall. I hope that with your trauma therapy, you’ll be engaged with physical therapy more often so that your mind and body will work together for your recovery.

    < Sienna Christie >

    1. Thank you for posting this. You have written such an effective layman's explanation of this seemingly simple yet intricate process.

      I am currently undergoing EMDR treatment and am keeping a blog of my experiences through this journey. Often, people who read and comment want to know what EMDR is. I hope you will not mind if I refer them to this post for a well-written explanation.

      It's good to have found your blog :)


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  4. So, one year later ---- does it work? what are the factors involved in the efficacy of treatment? How does one find a provider? Is this considered occupational therapy?

  5. I have had 2 years of DBT. It definitely helps. I've also had 3 sessions of EMDR and have been blown away ht the relief it offers from the pain of trauma. I wrote about it here.

  6. Hi,
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