The discovery of EMDR
In 1987, a respected American Clinical Psychologist and Researcher, Dr Francine Shapiro, made the chance observation that eye movements can reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts and feelings under certain conditions. Dr Shapiro studied this scientifically. In the 1989 edition of The Journal of Traumatic Stress, she reported success using EMDR in treating victims of severe trauma. Since then EMDR has developed rapidly, and has been widely researched. It is now used by trained therapists all over the world.
Emotional trauma and the brain
When an individual is traumatised, he/she may experience such strong emotions that their brain becomes overwhelmed. The brain consequently is unable to cope with, or process information as it usually does. Distressing experiences become ‘frozen in time’. Such events are stored in the brain in their original ‘raw’ form and can then be repeatedly remembered as ‘action replays’ or intrusive memories. As a consequence the person repeatedly relives the original unpleasant event/s. Remembering in this way may feel as bad as experiencing it the first time because the images, sounds, smells, and feelings don’t change or process. Such memories have a lasting negative effect on the way a person sees themselves, the world and other people. It can have a profoundly negative effect on all aspects of their lives.
What happens in EMDR?
Normally, when we receive sensory information it passes through an emotional filter in our brain called the Amygdala, which is located in the Limbic system of the brain. This information then passes through another structure, the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus processes information for time and space properties and allows it to pass to the left hemisphere of the brain. This experience is then stored in memory and something new is learned.
However, when incoming sensory information is emotionally-charged, for example because of a traumatic event or other very disturbing experience, it gets stuck in the Central Nervous System in the right hemisphere of the brain. This stuck information does not get processed. When reminders of the event occur, the stuck memory is triggered and is emotionally re-experienced in the present. This accounts for flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares that are common symptoms of PTSD.
How does EMDR work?
EMDR seems to directly influence the way that the brain functions. It helps to restore normal ways of dealing with problems (i.e. information processing). Following successful EMDR treatment, memories of such events are no longer painful when brought to mind. What happened can still be recalled, but it is no longer upsetting. EMDR appears to mimic what the brain does naturally during dreaming or REM (Rapid Eye Movements) sleep. EMDR can be thought of as an inherently natural therapy which assists the brain in working through distressing material utilising a natural process, this is called Adaptive Information Processing.
EMDR therapists help clients reprocess their traumatic memories by using a process that involves repeated left-right (bilateral) stimulation of the brain while noticing different aspects of the traumatic memory. It is believed that the bilateral stimulation of EMDR creates biochemical changes in the brain that aid processing of information. Theorists suggest that the mode of action occurs in the Limbic System, where the Amygdala and Hippocampus are located.
Is EMDR effective?
Research studies have shown that EMDR can markedly accelerate the healing process after a traumatic experience and that the effects are long lasting. In fact, there are now more scientifically controlled studies on the treatment of post traumatic stress disorders with EMDR than with any other form of psychological treatment. EMDR is highly effective, often preferred by clients and generally of shorter duration than other treatment methods.
EMDR integrates a range of psychological therapies within a comprehensive framework to effect therapeutic change. Therapists report recognising similarities to approaches they are familiar with, but they also observe therapeutic changes not normally achieved with their original approaches. To read more about the research evidence go EMDRworks.