The Origin of EMDR
The time was year 1987. Dr Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, went for a walk in the woods. On this walk, she was thinking about a personal distressing matter. Gusts of wind blew up the fallen leaves along the pathway. Francine spontaneously followed the movements of those leaves with her eyes as she walked. After the walk, she noticed that her thoughts and emotions seemed to have become a lot less distressing. That was the origin of the development of the incredible therapy that was later known as EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing.
How Trauma Sits in Our Brain
Today, EMDR has been extensively researched and proven to be a highly efficacious therapy. This method is mostly for processing traumatic experiences. When a traumatic event takes place, our brain stores the emotions, thoughts, images, and physical reactions from the incident. Due to the traumatic nature of the incident, sometimes these information is not integrated into the history of our life. As such, the information forms a little ‘island’ of their own. This island is insulated and not regulated by other positive life experiences we have in the ‘mainland’. As the information has not become part of the life history, they remain forever ‘present’.
For self-protection, our brain dutifully alerts us when there is ‘cues’ of danger. When we hear similar sounds, see similar images, encounter similar looking people, our body goes into a fight-or-flight mode. Whilst this might be helpful for survival, it can become very dysfunctional when we need to resume a normal life. We don’t need our body’s alarm system to go off all the time. Therefore, a reintegration is necessary, and that is what EMDR can be very helpful for.
A Case Example of EMDR Therapy
My client, Sarah*, has kindly agreed for me to share her personal experience of EMDR in this article.
Sarah had a car accident on her way to work recently. The incident left her with concussion, balance problems, hearing loss and tinnitus. Whilst these physical conditions gradually settled few weeks after the incident, she continued experiencing heightened anxiety whenever she tried to drive or take an Uber. After learning about EMDR, Sarah expressed interest in trying EMDR to process her traumatic memories.
Our sessions on EMDR consisted of processing pieces of memories related to the car accident that Sarah identified as difficult. We first processed the memory of her being confined at home during her recovery period the first few weeks after the accident. She described that period of time as full of uncertainty. She was worried about the prognosis of her injuries, her level of functioning, and being unsure about how long this process was going to take, whilst managing the discomfort of the injuries.
We started processing the emotions of uncertainty and anxiety. However, soon after we started processing them, she noticed an intense sense of sadness. Thoughts related to her lack of capability to function and work then started appearing and the emotion intensified. Following this was a gradual positive shift in her mood and her thought. Eventually, the thought “even though it was a hard time in my life, people close to me showed their love and cared for me” came up. Now when she thinks about this memory, she no longer feels all doom and gloom.
The situation was very different when we processed her memory of the panic attack on one of the occasions when she tried to drive after the accident. Soon after we started processing this, Sarah noticed intense physical sensations of panic in her body, predominantly the sensation of chest tightness. Through the processing this sensation peaked and then gradually reduced. And then we focused on her feeling of indigestion, which was another physical sensation she experienced in the panic attack. Once we started focusing on processing this sensation, Sarah started burping uncontrollably, and this sensation also peaked and then settled down by the end of the processing.
With these memories processed, we then moved onto processing the memory of the actual collision of the cars in the accident. We focused on the sensation of her body being flung in her car. Sarah reported feeling dizzy during the processing, and actually threw up in the session. As we persevered with it, the image of the glass window that she saw through the corner of her right eye came up. Sarah then realised that this image had been stored in her mind as a reminder of the accident, and therefore whenever she gets into the driver’s seat, her body immediately gets into a fight-or-flight mode, without her even knowing about it. Through EMDR, we were able to process this memory as well.
Sarah now has got back to the driver’s seat, gradually driving longer and longer distances from her home. She no longer has panic attacks when taking an Uber and driving, and her overall mood has improved. Overall, the sessions have helped Sarah’s brain integrate the memories of the accident in a way that our body no longer reacts to as if it is happening now, but an incident that took place in the past.
More Information on EMDR
EMDR is becoming more and more widely known in the popular culture in the last few years, with celebrities such as Prince Harry sharing their own personal EMDR journey. If you are interested in learning more about getting EMDR therapy, please feel free to contact our centre.
*The name used in this article is not the real name of the client for confidentiality reasons.
Jennifer MPsych (Clinical), PGDip ClinPsych, BA(Hons – First Class) is a psychologist who understands that a good therapeutic relationship is the starting point of any meaningful work with her clients. She is genuine and easy to talk to, and is dedicated to creating a safe space for her clients to share their stories.
Jennifer has worked in the fields of health psychology as well as general mental health in adults and children. These experiences have equipped her with skills in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of a range of mental health presentations. In addition, she has developed expertise in the management of tinnitus and hypersensitivity of hearing. Recognising that everyone is unique and different, she sees the importance of establishing a collaborative therapeutic relationship, and is committed to tailoring evidence-based interventions to her clients with different situations and backgrounds to effectively promote their mental wellbeing.
Through her years of clinical work, Jennifer has pursued her interest in working with adults experiencing a range of mental health issues including anxiety, depression, social adjustment issues, stress management, and cross-cultural issues. She is passionate about therapy, and is always committed to further increasing her professional knowledge to ensure she can provide the best possible care for her clients.