What is EMDR?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is an effective, powerful and gentle therapy with a strong research base. It is one of only two treatments approved by NICE for symptoms of psychological trauma and is recognised by the World Health Organisation as an effective therapy for people who have experienced traumatic events.

Trauma memories develop when the experience of a distressing event is incorrectly stored in the brain as if it is frozen in the body’s system. When a person is reminded of the past event, or when memories of it just pop up unexpectedly into the mind, the person can re-experience in the present what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt or beliefs at the time it originally happened, even with the same level of physical and emotional intensity as if the past is present.

EMDR therapy seems to unfreeze the memory by stimulating alternating left-right parts of the brain with eye movements, taps or sounds (bi-lateral stimulation). This may be similar to the natural process of REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes quickly move from side to side and is thought to help consolidate memories.

Many of us know that we can feel better about something upsetting after we ‘sleep on it’. Through this process, memories of the past distressing event (sights, sounds, smells, taste, beliefs and feelings) lose their physical and emotional intensity, appear less vivid, don’t intrude unexpectedly and seem like normal memories where the past feels like the past.

How does EMDR therapy work with children and adolescents?

EMDR therapy can be modified dependent upon the specific needs and developmental stage of your child or adolescent. For some children, especially very young children or those who may struggle to talk about the traumatic event, pictures are used instead of words.

When upsetting experiences and feelings are being worked with, it is important that children feel safe and in control at all times. EMDR therapy specifically addresses this, ensuring the child or adolescent has emotional ‘resources’ before targeting the traumatic memories.

Later on in the EMDR process, the child is asked to think about the traumatic memory alongside any thoughts, emotions or body sensations associated with it whilst receiving alternated bilateral stimulation (such as tapping the child’s hands bi-laterally or asking the child to follow the therapist’s hand with their eyes). Although we don’t know exactly how the bilateral stimulation works, the research over EMDR’s effectiveness with children often shows better results in shorter time frames than other therapies.

The belief about the memory (such as ‘I’m unsafe’ or ‘It was my fault’) also becomes adaptive during the processing of the memory and the child or young person is encouraged to think of a positive belief about themselves. As the memory loses its intensity and becomes correctly stored in the brain as something that happened in the past, thoughts such as ‘I’m free, now’ and ‘I’m safe now’ are experienced as naturally occurring beliefs. A final check is made to ensure that the child or young person are not experiencing any somatic (or body) memories – as these can also be associated to traumatic memories.

The final stage is the ‘re-evaluation’ stage where the child or adolescent is asked to re-rate how upsetting the memory is, now. This also indicates whether further work is required.

Many of these stages are done within the same session – and this is the reason why you may have heard that EMDR is ‘healing at warp speed’.