Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)

At The Wave, we specialise in trauma-focused care for teenagers and young adults. EMDR is one of the approaches we use in our programs when working with young people dealing with complex and developmental trauma, C-PTSD, attachment issues, dissociation and self-regulation. It’s also an amazing tool for boosting their emotional resources, such as confidence, resilience and self-esteem.

EMDR is made available to young people who are well placed to begin treatment, after an extensive period of stabilisation, orientation and resourcing. Individual EMDR sessions take place twice a week, for 90 minutes each, and are led by our clinical trauma specialists, Malek and Fiona Yassin. Both completed their EMDR therapy training at The Institute for Creative Mindfulness with Master EMDR Clinicians, Dr. Stephen Dansiger and Dr. Jamie Marich.

What is EMDR Therapy?

Discovered in 1987, by Francine Shapiro, EMDR is one of the most researched and utilised types of therapy for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of distress related to trauma and adverse life experiences.

EMDR is particularly effective for those unwilling or unable to access and analyse past traumatic experiences through thinking and talking. It bypasses this process and instead works directly on the traumatic memories themselves.

Using a combination of memory recall with rapid eye movements, EMDR helps to transform traumatic memories that are ‘stuck’ and deeply engrained within the body to a more functional, healthy state.

Research indicates that EMDR has a similar effect to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycles, where the body and mind naturally integrate information during dreaming. Like REM, EMDR techniques help to direct the brain wherever it needs to go in order to heal naturally.

It is a much quicker technique than many trauma-focused treatments, as it doesn’t involve extended recall of the distressing memory, detailed descriptions of the trauma, or heavy homework assignments.

How Does EMDR Therapy Work?

EMDR therapy is grounded in the understanding that our minds have a natural ability to process everything that happens to us, in a healthy and adaptive way.

Usually, when something happens, our eyes, ears, and other senses are the first to respond. This body information is naturally processed and stored as memories/learning experiences. These typically have a story-like quality and include our ideas and interpretations about what happened as well as the facts.

When a particularly painful or upsetting experience occurs, this natural processing and healing can become overloaded, causing our bodies and brains to respond differently. The information is put into an ’emergency store’, preventing the brain from fully processing the information at the time of the event. Without going through normal memory processing, the memory can become ‘stuck’, resulting in the original thoughts and feelings being stored in our brain in an unprocessed raw form.

When triggered, these ‘stuck’ elements are relived, causing the disturbing symptoms of PTSD (or other trauma-related disorders) to be re-experienced over and over again. They can cause flashbacks, nightmares and outbursts, making it very difficult for individuals to deal with everyday stressful situations in a normal way.

Using EMDR techniques, the information-processing part of the brain is directly activated, allowing it to access the ’emergency store’ and update any traumatic memory components held there. As they are being processed, any negative elements become associated with more positive, adaptive ones.

During EMDR sessions, a trained therapist guides the young person to concentrate on a troubling memory component (such as a feeling or body sensation) – in brief doses – while directing the movement of their eyes rapidly back and forth. Other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation can also be used, such as tones or tapping. The rapid eye movements stimulate the brain and help it to organise and ‘digest’ the old memories correctly.

This process is repeated, shifting focus to different parts of the memory, until the young person no longer feels any distress when recalling the original trauma. The traumatic memory loses its power. Negative thoughts, emotions or body sensations are transformed into positive ones, and regular, healthy processing is restored.

What Does EMDR Therapy Involve?

EMDR therapy follows a structured eight-phase approach that includes:

Phase 1: Evaluation and treatment planning
The therapist talks with the young person to identify targets for treatment that can include memories, behaviours resulting from trauma, current triggers and future goals.

Phase 2: Preparation
The therapist explains the techniques they are going to use and teaches the young person several relaxation methods, such as mindfulness and breath work. These are essential skills needed for the treatment phases ahead, but also valuable life skills the young person can use in the future to help them cope with emotional and psychological stress.

Phase 3: Assessment
Here the focus is on looking at and assessing specific memories that can be targeted during treatment. Negative memory components are identified and explored, such as beliefs, images, emotions, and physical sensations. The young person chooses positive alternatives, which will be used during treatment to replace the negatives.

Phase 4: Desensitisation
During this phase, the young person focuses on the target memory while at the same time making specific eye movements as directed by the therapist. This is called bilateral stimulation (BLS). It is during this phase that desensitisation takes place, reducing the disturbing emotions and negative self-beliefs linked to the memory.

When working with children and teenagers, in particular, the therapist often makes use of ‘The Stop Signal’, which gives young people a greater sense of control and helps them to feel safe. They are asked to raise a hand at any time to signal if they feel too upset to continue.

Phase 5: Installation
After desensitisation, the therapist focuses on replacing the negative associations with the target memory, with the positive alternatives agreed with the young person in Phase 3.

Phase 6: Body scan
The young person is guided in scanning their body to observe any physical responses when thinking of the target memory. This scanning is a meditative technique, where the body is scanned from head to toe, to notice any physical sensations or shifts. The therapist can identify where any residual stress/trauma may be ‘stuck’ and then repeat EMDR techniques to target any physical sensations for further process and release.

Phase 7: Closure
Phases 4–6 conclude with ‘closure’. The therapist stabilises the young person (using the techniques taught in Phase 2) and explains what they can expect before the next session.

Phase 8: Re-evaluation
This phase involves a review of the treatment and typically starts off the next session. The therapist evaluates whether treatment effects have been sustained and then works with the young person to identify new areas to target.

A typical EMDR therapy session will last for 90 minutes. Processing all the components of a specific memory will usually take one to three sessions.

The process is very exact and requires a therapist with a high level of training and expertise.

What Is EMDR Used to Treat?

EMDR therapy was initially developed for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but is now proven to be effective in treating a variety of other conditions, including:

  • addictions
  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorders
  • complicated grief and loss
  • depression
  • dissociative disorders
  • eating disorders
  • panic attacks
  • personality disorders
  • phobias
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • self-esteem issues
  • sleep disturbances
  • substance use disorders.

Recent data shows that EMDR therapy can be an extremely effective treatment for a variety of emotional and behaviour problems in children, teenagers and young adults, particularly when they co-occur with other mental health disorders (dual diagnosis).

Is EMDR Safe?

EMDR is a safe treatment that can be used with people of all ages, including children, teenagers and adults.

The risks of using EMDR therapy are limited to emotional distress during or shortly after treatment and include:

  • an increase in emotional distress
  • anxiety
  • heightened physical sensations
  • insomnia
  • lightheadedness
  • short-term depression
  • the surfacing of new traumatic memories
  • vivid dreams and/or nightmares.

Risk factors are minimal when a trained therapist carries out the therapy as part of a multidisciplinary team. Any side effects that do occur, typically reduce as therapy sessions progress.

How Effective Is EMDR?

While there are a wide variety of therapy methods used to treat trauma, including behavioural and medical approaches, growing evidence suggests that EMDR therapy repeatedly outperforms them all.

Whether used as a primary source of treatment, or as a complementary therapy alongside talk therapy sessions, studies show strong evidence that EMDR is a highly effective treatment for a variety of emotional, behavioural and mental health conditions. It also provides long-term solutions to recovery and well being, in a relatively short time.

The World Health Organisation (2013) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recognise EMDR as an effective therapy for children and teenagers who have experienced traumatic events. It also has the highest recommendation, for use with children and teenagers with PTSD, from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS, 2018).

A number of studies have found that the benefits of EMDR persist over time, with individuals less likely to experience a relapse in the years following treatment.

Grow, heal, and lay the groundwork for a successful, happy life

About The Wave

At The Wave, we help teenagers and young adults, between the ages of 15 and 30, overcome eating disorders, behavioural problems, addiction, and other mental health problems. We use a combination of physical activities and therapy sessions to help our young people to grow, heal, and lay the groundwork for a successful, happy life.

Mahisha Naidu leads our Creative Arts Therapy activities, having trained in Dance and Movement Psychotherapy at Goldsmiths, London. Mahisha has led The Wave Clinical Team for two years. She is passionate about her treatment of eating disorders and leads our food and body groups three times a week. Her role has seen her develop a specialist interest in working with adolescent girls, particularly focused on borderline personality disorder, self-harm and developing emotional regulation.

Mahisha is currently studying Internal Family Structures (IFS), which is an innovative therapy, particularly suited to our work at The Wave, where it has been used effectively with our young people and their families. Mahisha is a member of APPCH.

To learn more about Art Therapy at The Wave, please contact us.

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