EMDR: the therapy that helps trauma

Gemma Dowler – sister of Milly Dowler who was abducted and murdered on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002 – has spoken out about how EMDR has helped ease her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that had 10 years later, and credits her recovery to EMDR therapy.


She had tried talking therapies, but it was only when EMDR was recommended by her mother that she decided to try it.

“I found some EMDR therapy, which is eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing. It's a relatively new kind of therapy, they give it to army veterans and police when they see horrific things and basically it takes you back to the memory.

“The only reason I went was for mum and she said 'this will make you feel like you're closer to Milly, this will bring Milly back into your memories' and I was like, 'well I don't believe that' and then three sessions down it was just like 'oh my gosh'.”

What is EMDR Therapy?

Those who suffer from long-term psychological or physical pain can become reliant on painkillers and anti-depressants and suffer problems with addiction. But EMDR is a natural therapy that doesn’t require drugs, but uses a set of eye exercises to train the brain to take the emotional intensity out of a traumatic memory.

EMDR is an acronym for 'Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing'. It’s a powerful psychological treatment method that was developed by American clinical psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s.

How does the brain hold onto traumatic memories?

Traumatic memories seem to become ‘locked’ in the brain in their raw form. When these memories are recalled, they can be very upsetting. Sometimes, they can be triggered apparently out of the blue causing flashbacks, nightmares and outbursts. They can make it very difficult to deal with ordinary stressful situations in the calm and reasonable way we normally would.

Why is EMDR Therapy effective at dealing with trauma and pain?

We know that trauma memories are stored on the right hand side of the brain, known as the right hemisphere. This is more of our emotional and body memories and feelings are stored here. Some of these memories can cause physical as well as emotional pain. EMDR works in the same way as sleep does when we are dreaming. This is when we process what has been happening to us and our brain decides which information it needs to hold on to and which information to let go of. The left hemisphere is more of our thinking brain and this is where our language centre is. EMDR connects the right and the left hemispheres of our brains allowing the processing of trauma memories and pain. Of course, not everyone who has pain has experienced physical or psychological trauma, but we all know that being in constant pain is traumatic and EMDR can help with this too.

What problems can EMDR help with?

A wealth of research has been conducted demonstrating its benefits in helping to treat numerous kinds of psychological trauma.

Philip Andrews is a psychotherapist and EMDR specialist at private clinic Twenty-Five Harley Street, where he provides psychotherapy and EMDR for a range of mental health difficulties, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I work with clients at both a conscious level, to enable them to understand their issues and bring about change, but also at a deeper level to help them collapse the core beliefs that perpetuates emotional distress,” says Mr Andrews.

What can be treated with this technique: Conditions can be as diverse as war related traumas, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse or neglect, natural disaster, assault, surgical trauma, pain relief, road traffic accidents and workplace accidents. Since its original development, EMDR is also increasingly used to help individuals with other issues, such as addictions, weight loss, depression, anxiety problems such as phobia’s, OCD and performance anxiety. EMDR has been found to be of benefit to children and adolescents, as well as adults.

What happens during the EMDR Therapy sessions?

During the first two or three sessions the therapist will assess the pain and any trauma history, and offer techniques to help the client better manage their daily life.  

When the desensitisation phase begins, the client focuses on thoughts that he may find difficult, be they of pain or emotional distress for a few moments at a time. While this is happening, the client also focuses on an external stimulus – this may be eye movements, as directed by the therapist, or hand tapping. The idea behind EMDR is that it goes straight to the traumatic memory network, so that new associations are created between the traumatic memory and the information the client has received in the EMDR session. It’s believed that EMDR creates new neural pathways, allowing the emotional and physical symptoms caused by the issue to subside, and new positive ideas and sensations to take their place.

Does EMDR Therapy help with physical pain?

Pain can occur for many reasons. We generally understand pain as a signal that something is wrong physically. However, sometimes pain can continue longer than expected, despite medical treatment. Pain can persist because of fatigue, stress, and biochemical changes. As a result of these changes, the pain becomes “locked” in the nervous system. The system that gathers and stores information and is in overall control of the body. The brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system.  EMDR is a way of stimulating the nervous system to facilitate healing. Even though we might not be able to completely eliminate your pain, EMDR often stimulates feelings of relaxation, which will help.

How long are the EMDR sessions?

Most sessions take place over a 50 minute period. However, for some clients, it may be advantageous to have longer sessions over a shorter time frame. Your therapist will discuss this with you at the time of the assessment.

When can I expect to see results from EMDR therapy?

Each client is totally unique and will come with their own personal histories and experiences, so it is always difficult to say exactly how many sessions will be required. It is not unusual for clients to report that are noticing changes in their condition quite quickly. Your therapist will be able to discuss with you how many sessions that they feel may be required, once the initial assessment has taken place.

Book an appointment with Philip Andrews at Twenty-five Harley Street Day Clinic, 25 Harley Street, Marylebone London W1G 9QW. Telephone 020 3883 9525, or email appointments@25harleystreet.co.uk.  Visit 25harleystreet.co.uk


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