EMDR is best known for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and it can also help with a range of mental health conditions in people of all ages. Read some frequently asked questions below (there are more questions for professionals answered here).
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It is a therapy used to help people recover from distressing events and the problems they have caused, like flashbacks, upsetting thoughts or images, depression or anxiety.
EMDR is recognised by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which also recognises it as an effective treatment for children.
When a person is involved in a traumatic event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. The memory of the event seems to become “stuck” so that it remains very intense and vivid. The person can re-experience what they saw, heard and smelt and the full force of the distress they felt whenever the memory comes to mind.
EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.
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. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity.
The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day. Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do*. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way.
EMDR is a complex therapeutic process that should always be delivered by properly trained therapists.
* e.g. Gunter & Bodner, 2008
When a person’s mental health problems have their roots in a distressing life event, EMDR can be very effective very quickly. Studies have shown that EMDR can significantly decrease PTSD symptoms in just two or three sessions, and that the effect is long lasting (e.g. Ironson, Freund, Strauss, & Williams, 2002; Scheck, Schaeffer, & Gillette, 1998). People who have experienced several traumatic events, neglect or poor treatment as children usually need more sessions than this.
See the research section to read more about the scientific evidence for EMDR therapy. EMDR is endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
EMDR is best known for its effectiveness in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is widely used by the NHS, charitable organisations and private sector, and the Ministry of Defence use EMDR to help service personnel with PTSD.
EMDR can also be used to help treat a variety of mental health problems like depression or anxiety, especially where a difficult life event has been involved. EMDR can be useful for people who have witnessed or experienced an event like a car accident, a violent crime, sexual or emotional abuse, bullying, a social humiliation or the sudden loss of a loved one, and are struggling to recover.
EMDR is suitable for adults, young people and children. Younger children can find it difficult to fully engage with some types of talking therapies, so EMDR can be an effective, simpler alternative. See our page about EMDR and children to find out more.