EMDR therapy is used for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR was conceived in 1989 by the American psychologist Francine Shapiro. Since then there has been a considerable amount of research on EMDR and the technique has been developed and refined. All this research has now shown that EMDR is particularly effective for both acute and chronic PTSD.
Who is EMDR therapy for?
Many of us experience a traumatic event at some point in our lives; an event that has a great impact and takes time to process. Sometimes we manage to process and move on, but sometimes not. EMDR therapy helps people who continue to suffer from a traumatic experience in everyday life. Examples of events that can cause trauma are:
- a serious accident, such as a car crash or fire
- an incident of violence, such as an assault or robbery
- sexual assault, such as a sexual assault or rape
- a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or flood
- serious illness
- loss, such as of a loved one, relationship, job, or even something abstract like autonomy or self-determination
Post-traumatic stress disorder
People who do not succeed in processing such a traumatic experience on their own may continue to suffer from its consequences for years. We then speak of a post-traumatic stress disorder or trauma-related anxiety disorder. This sometimes dramatically affects daily life. Symptoms of PTSD are:
- bad memories, flashbacks, re-experiences, and nightmares
- avoidance of situations reminiscent of the trauma
- fear and panic attacks
- gloom, brooding, and worrying a lot
- stress, vigilance, restlessness, and increased alertness
- shame, guilt, and negative self-image
- being easily irritated or having a short fuse, anger, and aggression
- sleeping and concentration problems
- unexplained physical complaints
What is EMDR therapy?
EMDR is an abbreviation of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The name says it all: the therapy attempts to reprocess the trauma using eye movements. That sounds more vague than it is.
The theory on which EMDR is based has to do with the way your brain stores memories. The idea is that certain experiences, over time, end up as memories in your long-term memory. As soon as you bring them to mind again, they enter the ‘working memory’. However, working memory has a limited capacity. If you receive other stimuli at the same time, there is very little space left for the memory. The memory is, therefore, stored in another, often smaller, fuzzier, and less overwhelming form, back in long-term memory.
How does EMDR therapy work?
With EMDR therapy, this process is actively initiated. The EMDR therapist guides you as you bring the trauma to mind. You are asked to focus on specific images, thoughts, and feelings. Then you are given distracting stimuli that require attention from both hemispheres of the brain. Often you have to follow the hand movements of the therapist with your eyes. But it is also possible that you put headphones on and hear sounds that alternate between the left ear and the right ear.
After a while, you take a break and the therapist then asks you about your experiences. Often during this process, all kinds of new thoughts and feelings arise. Sometimes you even feel physical changes. Then the process is repeated. Only now the intention is that you focus as much as possible on these changes.
The results of EMDR therapy
EMDR therapy works through a series of these kinds of sets. The therapy ensures that the memory becomes less charged and is stored again in the long-term memory in this new form. It may even be that you start to connect positive aspects to it. This makes it easier to think back to the trauma in the future, without it immediately overwhelming you. Also, the memories of the trauma will not overwhelm you as easily.
Advantages and disadvantages of EMDR therapy
Disadvantages of EMDR therapy
EMDR therapy is emotionally demanding. Not everyone is ready to talk about their trauma and consciously bring it to mind as clearly as possible. It is, therefore, important to use a professional and experienced therapist. They can guide you step by step in this process and will not force you. It is also possible that at first new negative or strong images and emotions come up. Many people suffer from this for a few days after an EMDR session and, therefore, also complain of fatigue.
Benefits of EMDR Therapy
Fortunately, in most cases, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. For example, EMDR therapy often works extremely quickly, eliminating the need for years of talking to a therapist about the trauma. It can reduce the symptoms themselves so much that at the end of treatment there is no longer any PTSD. For many people with trauma symptoms, EMDR therapy, therefore, provides huge improvements in daily functioning.