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What is EMDR?

 Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy

 Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) was originally promoted in the late 1980s - early 1990s as a new type of therapy for the after effects of traumatic events. In 1980, for the first time, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) had been included as a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-3) of the American Psychiatric Association, making it a recognised disorder for the first time, and researchers and clinicians were looking for effective treatments. In 1987, Francine Shapiro, an English graduate and teacher turned PhD Psychology student, was struggling with some personal health challenges. The legend goes that Shapiro was walking in a park, trying to process news of a cancer diagnosis, when she noticed that her eyes were scanning side to side, and her stress and anxiety reduced. She took this observation and decided to explore it further, applying bilateral eye movements to volunteers whilst they recalled difficult experiences. By 1989, Shapiro had published the first research paper on the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation (EMD) to treat PTSD. Further research identified that something more than mere desensitisation was happening and that cognitive reappraisals of the memories were taking place so that memories were actually being fully reprocessed. EMD, thus became EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing.

There was considerable controversy and disbelief in the early stages of EMDR’s history, and that continues in some quarters to this day.  We now have 35+ years of research evidence supporting the view that EMDR is a valid, effective approach to treating, not just PTSD, but also a much wider range of mental health conditions.  EMDR has been compared to Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PET) and is found to be as effective as these other forms of therapy, and often in a shorter time frame. A Cochrane Review in 2013 found EMDR and TF-CBT to both be effective treatments for chronic PTSD, and that results held up at 4 month follow up.  EMDR is recommended as a treatment of choice for trauma by many international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (in the UK), the Department of Veterans Affairs & Department of Defence (in the US), the American Psychological Association, among others.

The use of EMDR has been popularised by celebrity and royal endorsements. Perhaps most famously Prince Harry, the younger son of the UK’s King Charles III, publicly stated how EMDR had helped him process a number of traumas relating to the death of his mother during his childhood, and military experiences in Afghanistan. I have also seen footage of British actress Jameela Jamil discussing her experience of successful EMDR treatment for severe childhood trauma.  These kind of celebrity endorsements have turned EMDR from being relatively unheard of outside of therapy and psychology circles when I first trained in it in 2013, into a well known, highly sought after therapy now in 2024.  The demand for therapists and supervisors in this field is ever growing.

Initially, EMDR was conceived as a method of using eye movements to desensitise a memory. However, Shapiro soon realised that more was happening and devised a detailed 8-phase protocol as her research developed the model. She identified that trauma symptoms were caused by maladaptively stored memories creating disturbance in our emotional, cognitive and physical experience.  Normally speaking, when difficult things happen, we think about them, talk about them, dream about them and heal from them in a natural process which Shapiro termed “adaptive information processing”. However, when events are overwhelming these processes are disrupted and the memory is stored in a fragmented form, with all the thoughts, images, emotions and body sensations staying as vivid and disturbing as when the event originally occurred. These maladaptively stored memories need some help in order for the normal healing process to take place.  Shapiro argued that in the same way as a physical wound will heal on its own, up to a certain degree of severity, so can mental wounds. However, just as a severe cut may need stitches to aid the healing process, a traumatic memory also needs additional help to aid its natural healing process.  What we see in EMDR is that with careful preparation and an attuned therapist, the bilateral eye movements seem to accelerate the processing of the memory from its maladaptive state, to a more adaptive state. Once processed, the person no longer experiences disturbance when recalling the event and no longer suffers from flashbacks, nightmares, or mood disturbances when new events trigger the old memory into awareness.

I have created a short e-book to describe what happens in EMDR, and it can be downloaded for free here…


Bringing quality trauma therapy to the world through delivering therapy, clinical supervision, teaching and training.

Understand and overcome trauma with my self-help book Coping with Trauma. Drawing as much on my own personal as well as professional experience of trauma to help those struggling with  trauma and those helping and guiding them. 

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