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What is EMDR and how does it work?

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach that was developed to help those suffering with painful trauma memories including those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It can help to process these memories, alleviating flashbacks and intrusive images and diminishing the overwhelming emotional distress associated with them. EMDR does not erase the memory; it helps you to store it like any other memory you have, so that you can recall it more voluntarily without it intruding on your day to day life and functioning.

During EMDR therapy sessions, you will recall aspects of the traumatic memory, focussing on the emotional and physical responses that occur in doing this. There is no need to discuss the memory in detail. When recalling the memory, you will then engage in a number of fairly rapid eye movements, most commonly by following the fingers of your therapist (there are however alternative options to this if you feel uncomfortable or unable to use your eyes in this way). Throughout the session, the therapist will check in regularly with you, asking what you noticed during each ‘set’ of movements. It can be an intense process, but you are completely in control and can stop at any time. Each set is like a train going through a tunnel; it may be dark and unnerving when you’re in it, but if you keep going, you will reach the light on the other side faster. You will repeat a number of sets of eye movements in each session and have a chance to discuss and debrief at the end.

In many ways, it seems hard to believe that this technique can work, but it really does. It has been widely researched and has been shown to be very effective. For this reason, it is recommended as one of the treatments of choice for trauma by the NICE guidelines (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). It is however now being more widely used for other presenting difficulties including anxiety, phobias and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).