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What Is EMDR Therapy and How Does It Work?


What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapy is an evidence based treatment which helps people recover from trauma and other difficulties such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, anxiety, phobias and panic disorders. EMDR is a recommended treatment as laid out in the NICE guidelines (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which lays out treatment guidelines for the NHS) for individuals who have experienced trauma or are exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, such as:

  • Re-experiencing the traumatic event or events

  • Trying to avoid reminders of the traumatic event

  • Emotional numbing

  • Hyperarousal (feeling "on edge")

  • Other mental health difficulties such as depression, anxiety or phobias

  • Self-harm or self-destructive behaviours)

  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches


How Does EMDR Therapy Help?

After a traumatic event (or events), we can often find ourselves plagued by distressing memories or images related to the event. This can lead to us feeling confused and distressed, and can lead to us experiencing some of the symptoms mentioned above. When we experience trauma, the memory is stored differently to our usual day to day memories. This is because our brain is overwhelmed by such a big, distressing memory. Our brain is unable to process the memory, which means that the traumatic event remains a current problem, rather than one that’s in the past. Triggering situations or events that remind us of the original trauma, trigger us to have ‘flashbacks’ which means we re-live and re-experience the emotions and body sensations that were experienced at the time of the trauma.

EMDR helps us to process traumatic memories and store them away safely so that we can remember, rather than relive, our past. EMDR helps our brain to reduce the distress linked to the memory and file it in the past. When we can process these traumatic memories in our brains, we can move ahead in our lives and let go of self critical beliefs and the emotions attached.


Why Choose EMDR?

Some people find EMDR preferential to regular talking therapies, as EMDR doesn't require that we talk in detail about the trauma. Instead, it allows the brain to resume its natural healing process. Even if the trauma happened a long time ago, and you don't have any memories, you can target the felt sense and work through implicit memories.


How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR is a therapy that uses bilateral stimulation (for example tapping, eye movement, tones) to help our brain process traumatic memories or distressing issues in our life which are holding us back. It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side, hear a sound in each ear alternately, or feel a tap on each hand alternately. It is thought that this process mimics what happens during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when our eyes move rapidly from side to side as our brain processes the events of the day. EMDR is different to many other talking therapies, as it does not require us to necessarily talk about the trauma. Instead of focusing on changing thoughts, emotions, behaviours (like CBT does), EMDR focuses instead on removing the emotional distress linked to these events so that they become more tolerable, and can be stored alongside regular memories. In EMDR sessions, you will recall traumatic or triggering experiences in safe, small and manageable segments, until those memories no longer cause distress.


What Can I Expect From EMDR Sessions?

With your therapist, you will most likely work through multiple phases. Often the first step is an introduction to EMDR therapy, taking background information from a client, identifying goals and preparing the client for the therapeutic process.. The focus will then be on developing resources to feel safe in the midst of distress. In this stage we do this by developing skills and tools to regular our emotions and stay within what is known as our 'window of tolerance'. These resources help our nervous system to stay calm and in the moment, rather than being overwhelmed and stuck in the past. Once a client has developed the inner resources to be able to move onto the next stage, this is where the Rapid Eye Movement part comes in. Here the focus will be on reconnecting safely to the distressing experience and noticing images, thoughts, emotions, sensations, beliefs that come up alongside the memory. This will help process the memory and reduce the level of distress in a safe environment.


EMDR is a powerful therapy that can help us to process traumatic events, let go of self critical beliefs and emotions and help us cope in the present moment.

If you are looking for EMDR therapy in Edinburgh, please feel welcome to reach out to us at the Edinburgh Counselling Service.

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