What is EMDR?

Lyn Wallace is a registered psychologist and works in private practice in Drummoyne Sydney.

EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing is a technique used by clinicians to assist in the processing of traumatic memories. Research supports the use of EMDR as an effective tool in therapy when used in conjunction with other psychotherapy.

Studies have shown that, compared to other approaches, such as desensitisation, improvements can occur more rapidly and are longer lasting. Why use EMDR EMDR is effective for processing single incident trauma. It can also be used to reduce the effects of the trauma associated with chronic or extended danger- such as that experienced by children who have witnessed domestic violence or for adults who have experienced sexual abuse as a child.

Trauma memories can result from experiencing any of the following:

  • Panic attacks
  • Workplace bullying/ accidents
  • Medical procedures/diagnosis of serious health problems
  • Complications in childbirth
  • Childhood sexual assault
  • Car accidents

Storing Trauma Memories

When we form a memory in a state of high alarm the adrenaline in our body directs these memories to be stored in a tiny almond shaped organ called the amygdala. Memories in this “filing cabinet” stay fresh and do not fade over time as ordinary memories do. In an evolutionary sense this makes absolute sense to remember what was threatening in the past. People who have experienced trauma can recall details of the event – the smells, the sounds, the bodily sensations of inescapable danger many years after the event. Not only this but when the memory is triggered and the amygdala alarm is sounding it causes a very important part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex to “go off-line”. Our pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for our clear thinking – it is in this part of the brain that we make plans, weigh up options and evaluate our feelings. Having this important part of the brain off-line can make us freeze and go blank (such as in extreme panic).

How does EMDR work

Our body has natural mechanisms for healing trauma-For example REM (rapid eye movement) sleep can be important in this process. The rapid eye movement used in EMDR can activate the memories stored in the amygdala and allow for processing and extinguishing of the emotional component of the memory .

Clients report that thinking about the traumatic event feels different and the most common reaction to asking the client to retrieve the memory is “ I can still see it .. but it has faded and it just doesn’t feel the same”.

The Procedure An EMDR session usually takes about 50 minutes to complete. Your therapist will ask you to recall a picture of the distressing event and while holding this picture in your minds eyes your therapist will ask you to follow his/her finger as it moves across your line of vision. This lateral movement of the eyes during the EMDR process is similar to the eye movements which a person experiences during REM sleep and is thought to assist in the transferring of memories to another part of the brain where they can be processed and healed. After a set of eye movements you will be asked to stop and briefly rest. The process continues until the original image can be seen, but is seen to be faded and without strong feelings attached.

After the Procedure Many clients report a reduction in feelings of worry and anxiety,reduction in flashbacks and a growing sense of ease with themselves. It is common for clients to report very vivid dreams for one to two nights


What is EMDR?