What is EMDR?
The mind can heal naturally in the same way as the body does.
Francine Shapiro is among a group of prominent innovators who discovered that the body has a natural psychological healing process which helps to deal with day-to-day stresses and minor traumas. This process helps reduce discomfort and enables us to assimilate, learn and grow from new experiences. Much of this natural coping mechanism has been found to occur during sleep, particularly during that period of sleep when we experience rapid eye movement (REM). In 1987, Francine Shapiro used this insight to developed Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), initially as a treatment for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since then, EMDR has evolved into a highly effective therapeutic technique for a wide range of problems.
What happens when you are traumatised?
Most of the time your body routinely manages new information and experiences without you being aware of it. However, when something out of the ordinary occurs and you are traumatised by an overwhelming event (e.g. a car accident) or by being repeatedly subjected to distress (e.g. childhood neglect), your natural coping mechanism can become overloaded. This overloading can result in disturbing experiences remaining frozen in your brain or being “unprocessed”. Such unprocessed memories and feelings are stored in the brain in a “raw” form. This means that they can be continually re-stimulated when you experience events similar to the difficult experiences you have been through. Often the memory itself is long forgotten, but the painful feelings such as anxiety, panic, anger or despair are continually triggered in the present. Your ability to live in the present and learn from new experiences can therefore become inhibited.
What is an EMDR session like?
EMDR utilises the natural healing ability of your body. After a thorough assessment, you will be asked specific questions about a particular disturbing memory. Eye movements, similar to those during REM sleep, will be recreated simply by asking you to watch the therapist’s finger moving backwards and forwards across your visual field. Sometimes, a bar of moving lights or headphones is used instead. The eye movements will last for a short while and then stop. You will then be asked to report back on the experiences you have had during each of these sets of eye movements. Experiences during a session may include changes in thoughts, images and feelings.
With repeated sets of eye movements, the memory tends to change in such a way that it loses its painful intensity and simply becomes a neutral memory of an event in the past. Other associated memories may also heal at the same time. This linking of related memories can lead to a dramatic and rapid improvement in many aspects of your life.
What can EMDR be used for?
In addition to its use for the treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, EMDR has been successfully used to treat:
- anxiety and panic attacks
- sleep problems
- complicated grief
- pain relief, phantom limb pain
- self-esteem and performance anxiety
- Physical and Sexual Abuse
Can anyone benefit from EMDR?
EMDR can accelerate therapy by resolving the impact of your past traumas and allowing you to live more fully in the present. It is not, however, appropriate for everyone. The process is rapid, and any disturbing experiences, if they occur at all, last for a comparatively short period of time. Nevertheless, you need to be aware of, and willing to experience, the strong feelings and disturbing thoughts, which sometimes occur during sessions.
How long does treatment take?
EMDR can be brief focused treatment or part of a longer psychotherapy programme. EMDR sessions can be for 60 to 90 minutes.
Will I remain in control and empowered?
During EMDR treatment, you will remain in control, fully alert and wide-awake. This is not a form of hypnosis and you can stop the process at any time. Throughout the session, the therapist will support and facilitate your own self-healing and intervene as little as possible. Reprocessing is usually experienced as something that happens spontaneously, and new connections and insights are felt to arise quite naturally from within. As a result, most people experience EMDR as being a natural and very empowering therapy.
What evidence is there that EMDR is a successful treatment?
EMDR is an innovative clinical treatment which has successfully helped over a million individuals. The validity and reliability of EMDR has been established by rigorous research. There are now nineteen controlled studies into EMDR making it the most thoroughly researched method used in the treatment of trauma.
What is Attachment-Focused EMDR?
Attachment-Focused EMDR can help you heal your attachment wounds.
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. EMDR therapy approaches psychological, behavioural and emotional problems from a trauma perspective. The theory behind EMDR is that adverse experiences – namely negative life events that overwhelm one’s capacity to cope – are not processed adaptively in the brain. Instead of becoming part of someone’s personal narrative in a psychologically healthy way, traumatic memories are stored independently like unchanging “crystals”. Those crystallised memories retain most original properties of the traumatic event, such as the distressing emotions and bodily sensations felt at the time it occurred. Once a traumatic memory is triggered, those feelings may be relived all over again, with or without one’s full awareness. In EMDR therapy, those upsetting memories are reprocessed with the help of bilateral stimulation (eye movement, auditory tones or tapping), so that they become integrated into the brain’s memory network. EMDR therapy does not erase traumatic memories, but edits them, so that you can look back at what has happened to you with confidence and ease. EMDR gives you the freedom to enjoy life without feeling controlled by your negative emotions.
Attachment-Focused EMDR (AF-EMDR) approaches trauma treatment from a relational trauma angle. Relational trauma is trauma that occurs “in the context of a relationship” (Parnell, 2013), be it with a mother and/or father, a relative, caregiver or any significant other. It may result as a failure to provide adequate care, as to attend to a child and adolescent’s emotional needs. Relational trauma may also follow neglect, physical, sexual and/or emotional/psychological abuse committed by a person of trust. Being raised in a dysfunctional family, by a depressed, anxious and/or toxic parent, with a substance abuse problem and/or a personality disorder (narcissistic, borderline, schizoid, etc.), as well as having a loving relationship with someone that suffers from any of those problems, may also be at the root of relational trauma. AF-EMDR helps the client heal his or her attachment wounds through resource tapping and a client-centred approach. It emphasises the importance of the therapeutic relationship in creating a sense of trust, empathy and safety in the client. By learning new coping skills, how to self-soothe and manage his or her emotions more effectively in the presence of a trusted other, and the client becomes able to rebuild a healthier view of the world and his or her self.
What should I expect in an Attachment-Focused EMDR session?
In your first AF-EMDR therapy session, you and your therapist will get to know each other. She will take your history and you will talk about your problem and symptoms. Then she will give you a brief overview of AF-EMDR and explain how reprocessing works in theory and practice. This is an opportunity for you to talk openly about what is bothering you and clarify whatever doubts you might have about individual therapy and AF-EMDR.
The subsequent sessions may include the following:
- Safe place and resources installation
- Dealing with a traumatic image (worst part of the traumatic memory)
- Exploring body sensations and emotions
- Identifying a negative cognition that is associated with that image
- Desensitisation and reprocessing: focus on the image, body sensations, emotions and negative cognition combined with bilateral stimulation
- Body scan
- Installation of positive cognition
- Closure and debrief (return to safe place, resource tapping)
- Closure and debrief (return to safe place, resource tapping)
What kind of problems can Attachment-Focused EMDR treat?
Because traumatic memories keep the body on survival mode, unresolved trauma may cause prolonged pain and distress. A diverse range of mental and emotional health issues in adulthood is linked to untreated trauma, such as:
- Low self-esteem
- Feelings of self-blame, guilt and shame
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Feeling vulnerable
- Feeling not good enough, like a bad or broken person
- Compulsive and obsessive behaviours
- Feelings of anger, irritability and resentment
- Emotional numbness
- Inability to feel pleasure in life
- Frightening thoughts and excessive worrying
- Difficulty concentrating
- Insomnia, sleeping disturbances
- Hyper vigilance, exaggerated startle reflex
- Difficulty making decisions
- Self-sabotaging and self-destructing behaviours
- Difficulties in relationships
- Thoughts of suicide
Is Attachment-Focused EMDR for me?
As trauma is of a pervasive nature and affects the great majority of the population, anyone may be affected by trauma. AF-EMDR can help people from differing age groups overcome the effects of trauma in a healthy and non-invasive way. Here are some facts about EMDR for your appreciation:
- Over 2 million people have been successfully treated with EMDR
- EMDR has been used as a therapeutic approach for over 25 years
- It has become the number one treatment of choice for trauma and it is recommended by the World Health Organisation
- It is one of the most researched therapeutic approaches in the world.
Clients who respond well to AF-EMDR tend to share the following characteristics:
- They have a fair notion of what is troubling them
- They are willing to talk about their problems, thoughts and emotions openly with a therapist
- They consider or are open to viewing the negative experiences they have gone through as traumatic
- They are comfortable with the idea of exploring the effects of trauma on their emotions, brains and bodies
- They are available for having therapy sessions on a weekly basis
Parnell, L. (2013). Attachment-Focused EMDR, Healing Relational Trauma. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
Vivienne trained in 2019 with Mark Brayne an Attachment focused EMDR trainer, taught by Laurel Parnell.