By Sahan Weerakoon, Provisional Psychologist
Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing therapy (EMDR) has seen increasing popularity in recent years, both as a trauma specific therapy and for its use in treating other forms of psychological distress.
If you’ve found yourself reading this article, you may have heard EMDR mentioned by your GP, a friend, or perhaps a mental health professional. Or maybe you’ve happened upon it through your own research. In any case, my hope is that this article serves as jumping off point for anyone interested in EMDR, or for those who are considering whether it might help them or a loved one.
What is EMDR?
Let’s start with what most psychotherapy looks like first, and then look at how EMDR differs. Most psychotherapeutic modalities are talk-based therapies, designed to bring awareness to, and restructure underlying beliefs, thought patterns, and associated emotional and physiological experiences. Where EMDR differs from more ‘traditional’, talk based forms of psychotherapy is its emphasis on the underlying neurobiological processes surrounding trauma, memory encoding and retrieval. As such, in EMDR, at times there is less talking and the therapist's main role is facilitating the brain’s innate ability to process memories in an adaptive way.
While there are talk-based elements to EMDR protocols (i.e., history taking, developing resources for self-soothing etc), the ‘active ingredient’ so to speak is the desensitisation of distressing or problematic experiences, current triggers, and future fears. If you’ve read up on EMDR you might have come across a plethora of interesting ways this can be done. For the most part you will see therapists have clients eye track their hand/fingers or an LED dot projected by a light bar. You may see clinicians incorporating auditory input via headphones or speakers and tactile input by asking to clients to perform certain movements (eg tapping their upper legs) or using pulsating devices (often called “tappers” or “buzzies” by therapists). The photo above shows our EMDR kit including an LED light bar and set of teal coloured tappers.
How does EMDR therapy work?
There are a few l ways that we believe EMDR works in desensitising individuals to previous, current, or future worries and experiences. One of the leading theories is the working memory theory. Imagine you fill a bucket to the brim with water. Now suppose this water represented distressing experiences and future worries. If you were to pour more water into the bucket, the water would overflow and spill out of the bucket. You can think of EMDR in a similar fashion, it attempts to ‘max out’ your brain, such that some of the distress you hold has no other option but to ‘spill out'.
When is EMDR used?
As you may have already guessed, because EMDR is effective at targeting specific experiences, it is often used for individuals who have experienced trauma and may or may not have developed PTSD as a result. This may be a single/specific traumatic episode (eg: a car accident, a distressing interaction with someone), or a complex trauma history (eg abuse in childhood). EMDR’s applications are wide and diverse, and it can be used across many presenting issues such as eating disorders, substance use disorder, anxiety and mood related disorders, and dissociative disorders. It's important to note that this list is by no means exhaustive and EMDR protocols can be adapted to address a wide variety of concerns.
Ready to get started or learn more?
If you’re interested in EMDR for yourself or a loved one, seek out a clinician trained in EMDR therapy who will be able to help you explore the potential usefulness and barriers to using EMDR for your situation. Therapists will generally list the therapies they are skilled in as part of their website profile, and this can be a helpful starting point. Most of the psychologists at Amherst Psychology are EMDR-trained and you can find out more by clicking here to send an email to our reception team.