Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, EMDR, was created by Dr Francine Shapiro in the 1980s, and at first it sounded like a bizarre import from California. Now EMDR is recognized in the UK by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, NICE, as the most desirable and effective treatment for chronic PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
EMDR draws on continuing advances in neurology and brain imaging technology which are beginning to suggest that brains run as information processing systems. This normally allows the brain to manage traumatic life events and eventually to store them away as history. This process means that traumatic events that are very unpleasant at the time are after a while consigned to the past and no longer feel threatening. When for whatever reason this process breaks down, the memory of the event stays unprocessed. The one-off traumatic life event becomes an on-going chronic trauma, one that is very much alive, present and often threatening to the individual concerned.
Through a series of carefully refined steps, EMDR kick-starts the brain’s healthy processing system which is then able properly to resolve and file a traumatic memory. Part of the process involves eye movement, which acts as bilateral brain stimulation when the eyes are moved to the left and right. This can also be achieved in other ways, such as tapping on either hand. The process desensitises a memory, allowing the brain to reprocess its meaning. In essence, it allows the brain to find a healthy, adaptive understanding of what happened, which the individual, previously stuck with an endless trauma, finds helpful. Brain imaging can show this process in action, as EMDR assists all cognitive, emotional and even physical - "body memory" - elements to resolve safely.
EMDR works with a direct effect on the brain, and so it's very different from conventional talking therapies. These will often stimulate a traumatic memory, but lack the mechanism to resolve it. This radically different approach is the reason why EMDR has become the preferred treatment for PTSD and why conventional counselling is not recommended. Typically, EMDR is quickly effective precisely because it does not rely on lengthy life analysis or repetitious reliving of problems. Clients who prefer not to talk in detail about what happened to them do just as well as those who are able to face up to discussing these traumatic events. The result, even for those who doubt whether EMDR will work, is almost always transformative.