EMDR Therapy and Trauma Treatment

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How eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is changing the way we understand treatment and recovery for young people.

Over the past two decades, eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (more commonly known as EMDR) has become increasingly common as a treatment for individuals who have undergone traumatic experiences. Many therapists and medical professionals have turned to this practice to address and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR is also becoming increasingly common when treating other neurodivergent and mental health conditions: most notably, it has been used to great effect in managing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

At The Wave, we offer EMDR therapy as one of the treatments for our young people, and our team includes qualified EMDR practitioners who tailor this particular method of therapy to the individual needs of teenages and young adults who are undergoing their recovery journey with us.

But what is EMDR exactly, and why has it become so popular in recent years? Below we give a brief overview of the history of EMDR as a method of therapy, outline some of the research which highlights its usefulness and effectiveness in treating both PTSD and OCD, and explore why this method of treatment is particularly beneficial when working with young people.

What Is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing Therapy?

Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy was first introduced by Francine Shapiro, PhD. As she walked through the park one day in 1987, she noticed that her eye movements seemed to be decreasing the negative emotions she felt associated with distressing memories.[1] Shapiro, who was a Senior Research Fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, and Executive Director of the EMDR Institute in Watsonville, California, spent the following years testing this theory and adding other adjacent therapeutic techniques to make eye movement as effective as possible in mitigating the negative impacts of traumatic memories. 

Soon, Shapiro was able to create trials based on the principle of having subjects move their eyes toward different external stimuli – objects or images – while discussing the memories causing them distress in a therapeutic manner.

The trial results were startling: a single session of EMDR appeared to dramatically alter subjects’ cognitive relationship to their traumatic memories.[2] In other words, focusing the eye on an external stimulus while discussing emotionally disturbing material in a therapeutic environment succeeded in reducing the stress of the person receiving the treatment. The book she wrote as a result of this work – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols and Procedures, published in 1995 – is still used by therapists seeking to take a trauma-informed approach to treatment and recovery.

Diverse Uses for EMDR

Since 1995, many other researchers and therapists have built upon the work of Shapiro to examine how EDMR can be used in various situations with clients who have experienced trauma or are struggling with a mental health condition. A systematic review conducted in 2018 found there was robust evidence that EMDR therapy is an effective treatment to reduce the symptoms of PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms.[3] There has also been a great deal of focus on how EMDR therapy compares with cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in treating conditions such as PTSD and, notably, OCD.[4]

In these studies, EMDR has shown to be as effective as CBT, if not more so. In fact, EMDR is emerging as one of the best ways of reducing OCD symptoms for individuals who are struggling with this condition. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a condition which is widely known for having debilitating, life-altering effects for those who are struggling with it. Historically, individuals who are diagnosed with OCD have experienced deterioration as their compulsions become increasingly intense and time-consuming. Findings which indicate that EMDR provides upwards of 70% symptom reduction for those with OCD are, in this light, particularly remarkable and offer a great deal of hope to those living with the condition.[5]

How Can EMDR Help Young People?

EMDR is a particularly interesting treatment in the context of recovery for young people with mental health conditions such as OCD. Although most research trials using EMDR have been conducted with adults, there is overwhelming evidence in the field of therapeutic treatment that neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to learn new pathways and be open to new methods of thinking as a result of experience) is much greater in younger people.[6] Given this fact, EMDR has excellent potential to help young people who are undergoing treatment for PTSD or OCD.

As this unique and groundbreaking method for treatment continues to develop – both through research and in practice – it is becoming an integral part of the treatment toolkit for therapists worldwide. For those of us working with young people, EMDR represents a particularly effective approach to treating symptoms, as well as being an excellent technique for helping restructure ways of thinking.

At The Wave Clinic, we know that mental health conditions, neurodiversity, and substance abuse disorders do not exist in a vacuum; trauma is often at the root of an interwoven fabric of symptoms, so treatment is never a one-size-fits-all approach. Our team keeps up to date on the latest research surrounding methods such as EMDR and their potential uses in treatment. Using a combination of therapies and treatments with our young people – for example, CBT and EMDR alongside family therapy, art therapy, and group therapy – helps us to create a multidisciplinary recovery framework grounded in both research and compassion.

At The Wave Clinic, our specialist team are trained in using EMDR alongside a variety of other therapies for treating a range of mental health conditions including PTSD and OCD. We are dedicated to providing the best possible care for our young people, and to structuring recovery that will be long-lasting. To learn more about EMDR or any of the other therapies we offer as a part of our treatment programmes at The Wave, visit our website: https://thewaveclinic.com

[1] Shapiro, F. & Forrest, M. (1997). EMDR The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Trauma. New York: Basic Books

[2] Shapiro, F. (1989). Efficacy of the eye movement desensitization procedure in the treatment of traumatic memories. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2, 199-223

[3] Wilson, D, et al. (2018) The Use of Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Treating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder—A Systematic Narrative Review. Frontiers in Psychology, 06/06. Volume 9. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00923

[4] Marsden Z, et al. (2018) A randomized controlled trial comparing EMDR and CBT for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Clin Psychol Psychother. 2018 Jan;25(1):e10-e18. doi: 10.1002/cpp.2120. Epub 2017 Jul 28. PMID: 28752580.

[5] Marr, J. (2012) EMDR Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Preliminary Research. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research 6(1):2-15. DOI:10.1891/1933-3196.6.1.2

[6] Weyandt, L. et al. (2020) Neuroplasticity in children and adolescents in response to treatment intervention: A systematic review of the literature. Clinical and Translational Neuroscience. Volume 4, Issue 2. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F2514183X20974231

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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