What do people say about EMDR therapy?


"I always knew in my head that I was a good person - I just never felt it. When I had EMDR therapy, I finally felt that I was a good person. When I felt it, I believed it"

"With regular therapy, I was going around and around. It was like a circle - going over the same ground again and again. Sometimes I felt worse. I didn't get to the root of the problem. In the end, I gave up"

"I am not a big talker. I held off going to therapy for years because it was too hard to talk about what had happened to me as a child. With EMDR therapy I didn't have to talk much at all, but I was still able to process my trauma. I feel so much better now"

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) was invented by Dr. Francine Shapiro, in California in the 1980s. The story goes that Dr. Shapiro was walking in a park, and had things on her mind. She noticed that the side-to-side motion of walking was a form of bilateral stimulation and that this cleared her head of troublesome thoughts as she walked. Another story has been told that Dr. Shapiro saw a volleyball game and that as her eyes followed the ball over and back, that this cleared her head of troublesome thoughts. Whichever version is true, it gave her the impetus to set about developing a more structured way of getting people to follow over and back with their eyes while thinking of a troublesome thought or memory.

Eventually, this led her to develop a structured method of doing what became known as EMDR therapy. Her initial work was helpful for Veterans who were still impacted by the Vietnam War from many years earlier. Many veterans had PTSD. EMDR therapy is practiced today by thousands of EMDR therapists worldwide working to help people get over all kinds of trauma and disturbing memories.

There is debate about how it works. It is believed that when someone experiences a trauma that it overwhelms the nervous system and that the memory is stored in an 'undigested' state. This means that the memory has not been processed (or 'digested') into the normal memory network and has not become part of a person's autobiography or story. As a result, this 'undigested' material keeps causing a 'reflux type' reaction, where a person can become triggered or their fear or anxiety can rise very quickly when they experience something that reminds them of the original trauma. The original memory is still highly charged. Over time, this can lead to avoidance by people of places and other people. It can cause a lot of sleepless nights or distress. People can use medication, alcohol, or other substances to try to bring calm or numb painful feelings. 

EMDR works by helping the person to 'digest' the original memory that has become 'stuck'. The person holds an image of the memory and the EMDR therapist moves their hand over and back so that the person follows with their eyes. This helps to access the 'stuck' memory and move it towards being 'digested'. There is more to it, and there has been plenty of solid research evidence to verify the work of EMDR therapy. Hopefully, this provides a brief explanation in layman's terms as to how it works.

EMDR therapy has 8 phases. You won't cover all eight phases in one therapy session. The initial phases are where the therapist will work out with you the issues that need to be worked on - this is a treatment plan. An EMDR therapist won't throw you in the deep end of the pool, so to speak - each person needs help to be prepared to 'fight the dragon' that represents their traumatic or disturbing memories.

The initial therapy sessions will be learning about the issues, and preparing you (there are specific methods and strategies such as a safe place exercise), before starting to work through the issues that need to be dealt with. You also need to build a working relationship with the EMDR therapist and build a level of trust so that you feel safe when working on difficult issues.

Then, you will start to move into processing the difficult thoughts or memories. This is done in a structured way by the EMDR therapist - you will not spend the session talking about the memories that bother you but you will be processing them until they are 'digested'. You and the EMDR therapist will evaluate and check that each piece of work is complete. all EMDR therapy work needs to be closed properly at the end of each session, so that you can go back into the world again and function after your EMDR therapy session.

At the start of each new session, the EMDR therapist will check in with you to see if any issues had emerged since the previous EMDR therapy appointment. The work with then continue.

EMDR is considered the gold treatment standard therapy of choice for dealing with trauma and PTSD. However, trauma comes in many forms - trauma with a big T and trauma with a small t. People can be bullied in school or work, or receive very negative messages from parents while in childhood. Each of us is different, and we are each impacted in different ways by our experiences. Sometimes people do not even know that they have been through trauma because they have been told it was normal at a certain time in their lives to be treated badly. EMDR can work for addictions, anxiety, depression, phobias, pain management, and traumatic events such as assault, road traffic accidents, and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

When a person decides to do EMDR therapy, the therapist should check that the person is ready and able to do the EMDR therapy. This can mean that if a person is in the middle of a court case, that this is likely not to be the right time to do EMDR therapy. Similarly, if the person is due to go into hospital for a serious medical procedure, that will involve a lot of focus on the surgery and recovery - this is unlikely to be the right time. The birth of a baby can bring complications, be stressful, and involve lots of change. Timing is everything. The person doing EMDR therapy needs to have a level of stability in their lives and to have supportive people around them if needed. It is wise to discuss the timing and suitability of your situation with an EMDR therapist before starting the EMDR therapy work.