As a psychologist I love learning about different types of therapy. I've recently been training in a new (to me) therapy called EMDR, so I thought I'd share a bit of what that looks like with you!
So, what's EMDR?
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing - which is a bit of a mouthful, so most people just call it EMDR! It was developed in the 1980s, so it's been around for a while, and it is most commonly used to treat trauma.
What do you mean by trauma?
Well, that could be someone with a "formal" diagnosis of PTSD (for more on that, have a look at my blog here) or someone who is experiencing symptoms of trauma, which can be flashbacks to a memory, nightmares, and hypervigilance (being really aware of certain things or your surroundings). Symptoms can also include anxiety and mood difficulties, and can have a real impact on your day to day activities. No wonder people might want some help managing them.
How does EMDR work?
Well, we don't really know exactly, but I can tell you a bit about what we think happens. When you experience trauma, sometimes that trauma gets stored in the brain in a way that isn't helpful. The memories don't encode properly as memories, and everything gets a bit jumbled up. That means, when you think about the memory again, you can experience feelings and sensations that happened at the time of the event as though they were happening again right this second. Your brain doesn't know what to do with that, so it tries hard to process the memories, but because they're a bit stuck, it often makes things worse (you have nightmares, or intrusive thoughts about the memory all the time). EMDR is a way of processing those traumatic memories so that they become properly stored in the brain and you don't get the symptoms any more (or if you do, they are greatly reduced). Sounds good, right?
What happens in an EMDR session?
This is where some people find EMDR a bit weird. Whereas "typical" therapy usually consists of talking about what has happened to you and finding ways to cope with it, EMDR doesn't involve lengthy discussions of trauma or detailed descriptions of it. You'll be asked to recall the memory yourself in a bit of detail, but you only have to share brief bits of it with the therapist. Then, the therapist will ask you to focus on that memory whilst doing something called bilateral stimulation, which might be following a dot on the screen from left to right, following the therapist's hand as it moves, or tapping your shoulders in an alternating pattern.
Well, focusing on the memory as well as bilateral stimulation seems to allow the brain to process the memory. It might be something to do with working memory (the amount of stuff you can process at a time), it might be improving the connections in your brain, we're not quite sure, but we do know that it can be really helpful for people struggling with trauma - so much so, that it's one of two treatments recommended by the World Health Organisation for treating trauma (the other being cognitive-behavioural therapy).
How are you finding it as a therapist?
Honestly, a bit weird! It's so different to my usual practice of talking (often at length, I can go on a bit) to people and hearing the details of their lives, but it seems to work well for people (both in my experience and in that of my colleagues, who all seem to really enjoy using it).
If I wanted to get EMDR, where could I go?
EMDR is available on the NHS in some areas, or I'd recommend a service such as the "find a therapist" function of EMDR Academy if you were looking for a private therapist.
Do you have any experience of EMDR therapy? Let me know in the comments!
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects