What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. Francine Shapiro developed the model. Interested in finding out more about what is EMDR therapy and how it might help? Then please do read on.

Life is never plain sailing for most of us. We have our good times but often several bad experiences too. We might find that we cope ok and get through these difficult times. However if we experience things as traumatic or overwhelming in any way then our brains may well store them differently within our filing systems. This could mean that they continue to have an impact on our day to day functioning and our current mental health.

It does not matter what these difficult things are that we experience. If we felt overwhelmed, shocked or traumatised by them they can continue to have a big impact on our functioning. They can continue to impact us a long time after they are over.

These experiences could include bullying, loss, death, sexual assualt, physical assault, a car accident, a work accident, military trauma, abusive relationships, a difficult childbirth, a difficult childhood. The main point is that if you found it overwhelming or traumatic it can then become a trauma memory, and affect your current functioning.

If you struggle with overwhelming emotions then please do download my free PDF – 4 ways to unhook from overwhelming emotions Click here for your copy

EMDR is based on a theory that current difficulties with mental health are not always about the here and now. Current difficulties can be connected back to unprocessed trauma or difficult experiences that have happened to you throughout your life. It is as if you are living your life in the here and now but constantly get pulled back to the there and then.

How do we heal?

The body has a physiologically based system that is driven towards healing. If for example you get a cut, your body will do what it needs to heal that cut. How amazing is that? We don’t tell it to, we don’t pause and watch it doing it’s magic, it just does what it does. 

But if the wound were to become infected, this would need to be treated before the body can do what it does to heal. To use this as an analogy, it’s as if past trauma is an infection in the wound and we need to process and work through that trauma to be able to allow the body to do it’s natural healing. 

So we know a little bit about what it EMDR but read on to develop a deeper understanding. 

EMDR aims to understand what are the trauma memories that have caused an imbalance in the system and stopped natural psychological healing from occurring. We then process through these experiences. To use the physical health analogy, treat the infection so that the body can do what it needs to do to heal itself

We firstly need to take time to make sure you feel safe and comfortable enough to process your trauma memories. In many ways it seems strange to think that focusing more on the trauma and processing it will help. But this is at the heart of what is EMDR. Usually we try and not think about these things and hope that they will just disappear. But we know that in the long term that doesn’t really help.

During an assessment we  identify the trauma memories connected to the difficulties you are experiencing day by day. 

When we are ready to process the trauma memory. We activate the trauma memory by bringing it from the back of your mind and focusing on it. The bilateral stimulation is used to move your awareness from the right and left side of your brain. This is done in a number of ways but it can include following a light with your eyes from side to side, tapping from side to side or listening to a sound such as a beep in a headset that alternates from side to side.

What happens in an EMDR session?

Dr Hannah Bryan - EMDR

The research is still a little mixed about how the bilateral stimulation helps. There are a number of different theories, it could be similar to the rapid eye movements we get during sleep. Most of us can connect with the idea that sleep is reparative and often wake up feeling different about something that was troubling before we settled to sleep.

We are also taxing the short term memory. The short term memory is like a loop. It only holds so much information and the information then needs to be filed away in it’s appropriate place. So taxing this whilst thinking of the trauma memory can lead to it being filed away in it’s appropriate space.


EMDR therapy recognises that the problems we have in there here and now are often connected back to unprocessed trauma memories that have happened to us in the past. Therapy involves us identifying what those key memories and experiences are. Therapy generally starts with a period of developing a sense of safety and learning tools to help manage difficult emotions. We will then begin to process your trauma memories.

Through processing these trauma memories we can sever the connection to the past, enabling you to live better in the here and now.

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EMDR helps us to sever the connection between us in the here and now and our past trauma. Enabling us to live a better life.