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  • Writer's pictureHelen Su

What is EMDR?


For anyone unfamiliar with this therapy, Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing is a lot of words to begin with. It's been around for a bit but has had its dips and turns like any other therapy when it comes to recognition and more importantly empirical evidence to back its use.

Some time in the late 80s, Francine Shapiro who stumbled upon the effect of eye movements in reduction of negative feelings towards her own traumatic memories. As with most things in psychology, curiosity, experimentation and perseverance lead to further studies and deeper understanding of how the human mind works. For more history on EMDR and how it developed, the people at the EMDR Institute and EMDR Association of Australia have fantastic summaries.

EMDR is also one of the therapies that had come to my attention later in my career compared to other therapies. You see, unlike most talk therapies we know, EMDR has the distinction of requiring both patient and therapist actively engaging a set methodology/protocol of movements which appear to be unrelated to trauma or memory at face value.

If you were witnessing the most intensive part of EMDR being performed, it would seem like the therapist is waving their hands at the client in a trance-like movement, or the client does a series of repeated movements - kind of like how Prince Harry did.

Every so often they would pause in between while the client expresses seemingly random descriptions of a traumatic memory. The therapist would not be saying much at all like in talk therapy. In fact, they would be repeating the same instructions over and over again, such that the audience may be even able to figure out what the method is after listening intently a few times.

Very bizarre indeed.

What's it for then?

Like for all trauma-focussed therapies, EMDR is used to target traumatic memories. EMDR has lended itself to other applications as well of late - eating disorder symptoms, phobias etc. It also enables the therapist to engage with the client using a set protocol which speaks to the natural information processing function of the brain to help itself.

The Basics

So how does this information processing function happen and why are we utilising it to aide the brain with its own strength?

The brain processes information like so:

(1) sweep for information around us,

(2) make an assessment and register the stimuli,

(3) interpret what the information means using previous experiences and has the ability to consider different interpretations depending how psychological flexibility,

(4) organise this new information in its storage system (ie working memory, short-term memory, long-term memory etc.),

(5) speaks to all other parts of the brain to come up with what we're going to think, say and how to act in that particular moment in response to the information in (1)

This learning mind continues to absorb whatever experiences it comes across throughout our lifespan.

(a) a young mind absorbs at a great rate and forms the foundation at which all other experiences are built later on

(b) traumatic events do not always allow the brain to employ this straight forward and seemingly mechanic stream of processing all the time

(c) if an event is big enough or if several experiences are similar and have an accumulative effect, this gets in the way of the information processing the brain does naturally.

In other words, the brain's (1)-(5) takes a hit when impactful events happen and EMDR can help with (1)-(5) when it comes to traumatic memories.

EMDR does this by helping the client simulate the information processing function (1)-(5) to move these traumatic memories along so that they do not remain stuck in the forefront of the brain, easily triggered, persistently putting the person in survival mode, as if they were still experiencing that memory over again and again.

The bilateral stimulation (like both hands on a steering wheel, doing squats and making sure you're using both sides of your body evenly) activates the information processing function (1)-(5) and provides extra stimuli (looking left and right, butterfly tapping, buzzers in hands) as bolsters and anchors to remind the client they are in the therapy room (in the present) while the brain is flooded with the target memory (in the past).


Before all this sounds even more strange and unfamiliar, I want to assure clients that this bilateral stimulation phase or the processing phase does not happen right away eventhough it's the main part that will bring about change for you most effectively.

EMDR is inclusive of beginning Phases where your therapist does what is more similar to other therapies. They will ask you about the impactful event(s), they will do a thorough history of any emotionally-laden event you can think of, and look at the brain's storage system and memory network as much as you can remember (no matter whether it's called trauma or something else). Your therapist will walk you through classic relaxation, breathing, mindfulness strategies - anything they and you would find useful for your current worries. After all, you have been through some really impactful experiences.

Your therapist will then run you through the protocol and familiarise that with you using some calmer targets (e.g. your happy/calm place) and orientate you to the process that way.

And when the exciting part comes, you'll both jointly pick the most pressing, distressing or relevant traumatic memory and go with that.

Thinking this might be the therapy for you?

As a mental health advocate, I strongly believe in the self-practice of mental wellbeing (and acknowledge its challenging nature). EMDR is an effective therapy to assist your mind in processing trauma. I look forward to sharing more with you.

See you soon,


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"The past affects the present even without our being aware of it"

Dr. Francine Shapiro


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