Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing
Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR)
Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR) is primarily seen as a treatment for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, it is also applied with benefit to chronic pain, anxiety, and performance psychology. The Australian guidelines for the treatment of PTSD and ASD recommend that individuals with PTSD should be referred for trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy or EMDR, as the first line treatment, before even the prescription of medication. This recommendation is made because many studies have shown EMDR to be an effective treatment intervention, with fewer side effects than medication.
EMDR and Trauma
After a trauma, many people experience flashbacks, intrusive thoughts or body sensations reminiscent of the trauma, inability to relax and high anxiety. This is a normal response to trauma, and for most people, these symptoms resolve on their own. But others may find that they would benefit from seeking treatment, if the symptoms do not resolve with time. It is common to avoid therapy as, after a while, just talking about the traumatic incident is unpleasant, and therefore avoided. However, avoiding talking about the trauma generally does not help.
The goals of EMDR are to desensitise intrusive emotions and to reprocess the memory of traumatic events. The attention to eye movement is one distinctive part of the treatment. Research has shown this treatment to be effective for the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorder (ASD).
The theory behind EMDR assumes that ASD and PTSD occur because of the way that the trauma is remembered. During a traumatic event, overwhelming emotions lead to the experience being stored in an ‘unprocessed’ way, and as such the emotions and experiences are not resolved. Individuals report that these memories are fresh. Often there is the comment – “I remember it as if it was yesterday.” For more information about this treatment, see the EMDR Institute, or this article in the Scientific American Magazine.
In EMDR, the person is asked to focus on trauma-related imagery, negative thoughts, emotions, and body sensations while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth following the movement of the therapist’s fingers across their field of vision for 20–30 seconds or more. This process may be repeated many times. It is not really necessary to understand how and why it works, to gain benefit from the therapy.