Why EMDR is more than just another therapy with a funny look and a strange name

When Mel B publicly announced this summer that she was going into treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an unusual kind of psychotherapy started to draw attention: EMDR formerly known as, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Talking about her diagnosis in particular, it appears that Mel B had been self-medicating with sex and alcohol, which is otherwise not uncommon with this diagnosis. In an interview during the summer of 2018, she pointed out that “[I am] still struggling but if I can shine a light on the issue of pain, PTSD and the things men and women do to mask it, I will do […]”.

More recently comedian Adam Cayton-Holland recounts in his book (Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir) the death of his sister, who took her own life. In an exclusive excerpt from his book, Cayton-Holland reveals that EMDR helped him recover from PTSD following his sister’s suicide.

So what exactly is EMDR, why is it getting the headlines, and does it in fact, help with traumatic experiences? If so, is this evidence-based treatment and, is there a connection with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) the golden standard in psychological treatments?

More questions than answers..?

For a therapy that is committed to resolving traumatic re-experiencing, PTSD [1] would have been an obvious starting place for the application of EMDR. Most of the earlier work and research into this therapy, discovered by complete accident [2] by Francine Shapiro, would naturally focus on traumatic memories processing. Shapiro`s earlier research (in the late 80’s and early 90’s) would successfully demonstrate EMDR’s efficacy (Shapiro, 1989). Subsequently, numerous research and clinical trials followed, which would have culminated with a meta-analysis of no less than 38 randomised controlled trials (RCTs). The conclusions were very clear: EMDR and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with a trauma focus (TF-CBT) are the two most effective treatments for adults with this disorder (Bisson et al., 2007). A separate review of the efficacy of EMDR for traumatised children also showed that EMDR and TF-CBT are superior to all other treatments. EMDR however, was found to be slightly more effective when compared with CBT by Rodenburg et al. in 2009.

Two further meta-analyses in 2013 found that EMDR is better than no treatment, it is similar in efficacy to TF-CBT and also that ‘the eye movements do have an additional value in EMDR treatments’ (Bisson et al., 2013 and Watts et al., 2013). However, due to high drop outs, poor quality of evidence, and significant rates of researcher bias, authors warned against inconclusive analyses and inaccurate interpretations of the results.

In spite of a work in progress understanding of all the mechanisms involved in EMDR, a few strong hypotheses have been proposed over recent years. Those theories coupled with demonstrated efficacy, have been sufficient for EMDR to secure a place alongside CBT, within the treatments recognised by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) and the World Health Organization (WHO) as the psychotherapeutic treatments of choice for post-traumatic stress disorder.

EMDR mechanisms explained

So how does it actually work? And what are the mechanisms and approaches involved in the treatment process? Simply put, the patient is asked by therapist to recall distressing images while generating a type of bilateral sensory input, on short bilateral processing or bilateral stimulation (the preferred terms for this article). This basically refers to side-to-side eye movements or hands tapping (though tapping is less common in EMDR). The effect is to desensitise the client to the distressing memory but, more importantly, to process the memory so that the associated cognitions and affects become more adaptive.

The EMDR toolkit is clearly prescribed but to the untrained eye, it can appear almost mechanistically applied, which makes this approach an easy target for many critics from other schools of psychotherapy, usually positioned outside the spectrum of CBT therapies.

A standardised template consisting of an eight-stage protocol is routinely employed with every traumatised patient. The treatment typically starts with comprehensive history taking and case formulation, a process that is very similar to CBT. This is followed by a preparation phase in which the client is provided with the all necessary (internal) resources to safely manage the processing of their distressing memories (e.g. stop signals, etc.).

The assessment phase involves identifying the patient’s target memory, the associated negative cognition, the desired positive cognition (this would become a therapeutic goal), bodily sensations and various ratings for the level of distress and the level of belief in the positive cognition (other immediate therapy goals would be to improve these ratings).

The assessment is followed by the desensitisation phase or the actual memory processing [3] through bilateral stimulation. The final phase would involve installing the desired positive cognition (this process is normally referred to as installation) and a final body scanning for any residual physiological symptoms before the final debrief. This work is not usually backed up by real life exposure or other behavioural exercises in-between sessions, which would usually be the case with cognitive-behavioural therapies.

The adaptive information processing model (Shapiro, 2007) suggests that new experiences are integrated into already existing memory networks. Memories are processed and integrated via sophisticated cognitive screening mechanisms based on individuals’ past experience and understanding of themselves and the world they live in (also known as schemas and/or schema processes in CBT). However, if the experience is traumatic, the information processing system stores the memory incorrectly, often in the wrong parts of the brain and in a still (rigid or frozen) format without adequately processing it to an adaptive format. Thus traumatic memories fail to become integrated into the individual’s life experience and concept of the self. For example, an individual who becomes traumatised as a result of a car accident would experience a much more global sense of vulnerability. In other words, the trauma victim would feel weak and vulnerable across a range of situations not only when he comes in contact with the traumatic stimulus (e.g. the vehicle responsible for the trauma). In PTSD, individuals continue to relive the trauma as if the event is happening all over again, in the present moment. Patients therefore become avoidant of anything that would be connected to the trauma and tend to become hyperaroused and hypervigilant.

The above formulation which simply explains some of the perpetuating and precipitant mechanisms involved in PTSD is strikingly similar to the CBT approach for trauma. In fact, not just the conceptualization of trauma, but also a range of empirically based cognitive-behavioural interventions [4] such as exposure, desensitization, meta-awareness, attention-orientation training, are all at the very core of EMDR also. Professor Paul Salkovskis a renowned UK based CBT researcher and author, pointed out in a 2002 article, that the eye movement in EMDR is completely irrelevant, and that EMDR effectiveness is solely due to having similar properties to CBT, such as desensitization and exposure (Salkovskis, 2002).

It would be fair to describe the side-to-side eye movements or hands tapping as somewhat unorthodox exercises for the traditional psychotherapist, and therefore it should be no surprise that bilateral stimulation has been the target of many debates and studies. To make matters worse, the evidence hasn’t always been favourable. Some studies compared using EMDR with and without the use of bilateral stimulation and even a meta-analysis of 13 studies (Davidson & Parker, 2001) concluded that eye movements made no difference to its effectiveness. But on the other hand, Stickgold (2002) proposes that eye movements in EMDR produce a brain state similar to the one during REM sleep. It has been shown that REM sleep serves a number of adaptive functions, including memory consolidation. Observing the parallels between REM sleep and EMDR, Stickgold proposes that EMDR reduces trauma-related symptoms by altering emotionally charged autobiographical memories into a more generalised semantic form (Stickgold, 2002). Interestingly, when investigating the neurobiological processes involved in attention training in third-wave CBT (mindfulness), Philippe Goldin (2009) also observed a shift from a rigid narrative sense-of-self to a more fluid or experiential sense-of-self aided by attention training exercises and focused breathing. Propper and Christman (2008) draw upon research suggesting that retrieval of episodic memories is enhanced by increased interhemispheric communication. Gunter and Bodner (2009) found that although vertical eye movements do not enhance hemispheric communication, they did decrease memory emotionality as effectively as horizontal movements.

Final thoughts…

It is my opinion that, to the traumatised patient often in distress, such clinical debates and views very little matter. Improved neuroplasticity and cognitive-behavioural changes could be achieved in a variety of different ways as shown by Golden (2009) and numerous other CBT studies. A number of additional covert factors that facilitate change are equally important. For instance, if patients’ motivation remains high and expectations from a specific therapeutic intervention are equally high, treatment outcomes would be positively influenced. This further implies that the therapeutic alliance and trust in the clinical skills of the therapist are also essential. As such, these important resources have to be given priority throughout the therapy process.

Who can get training in EMDR

In UK the more advanced cognitive-behavioural training programmes also include training or at least an overview of EMDR in the context of evidence-based treatments for trauma. However EMDR has its own accredited training organisations (via EMDR UK & Ireland) and therefore it does not placed itself under the umbrella of CBT therapies (or BABCP). Training in this method is not usually offered outside the psychological or psychotherapeutic community, which means that one would have to have a core mental health profession or to be CBT accredited before specialising in EMDR. There are three levels of EMDR competences that can be achieved and the highest level would indicate the most skilled level of EMDR application.


[1] Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a severe form of anxiety caused by exposure to very stressful, frightening or even distressing events. PTSD victims often relive the traumatic event through flashbacks (memories of the trauma) and they experience states of hyperarousal (intense fear), isolation, shame and guilt in different degrees. Years of clinical research have noted a range of trauma-related psychological problems that were not captured in the DSM framework of post-traumatic stress disorder until recently. PTSD, dissociation, somatization, and affect dysregulation represent a spectrum of adaptations to the traumatic experience. They often occur together, but traumatized individuals may suffer from various combinations of symptoms over time. When treating PTSD patients, it is critical to attend to self-regulation and cognitive integration of traumatic experience and to provide systematic treatment that addresses both intrusive recollections and, all the other symptoms associated with the trauma (van der Kolk et al., 1996).


[2] In 1987, Dr Francine Shapiro (Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California) was walking in the park when she realized that eye movements appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories. She assumed that eye movements had a desensitizing effect, and when she experimented with this she found that others also had the same response to eye movements. It became apparent however that eye movements by themselves did not create comprehensive therapeutic effects and so Shapiro added other treatment elements, including a cognitive component, and developed a standard procedure that she called Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD).

[3] The working memory hypothesis proposes that eye movements and visual imagery both draw on a limited capacity of the visual and central executive working memory resources. The demand and competition created by two or more tasks will impair imagery, so much so that images become less emotional and less vivid. It has been established that horizontal eye movements tend to tax working memory (Van den Hout et al., 2011). In support of the working memory hypothesis, studies have found that other taxing tasks during recall also reduce vividness and/or emotionality of negative memories (De Jongh et al., 2013).

[4] The cognitive model for PTSD by A Ehlers and D Clark, the Interacting Cognitive Subsystems (ICS) model by Barnard and Teasdale, the typical Socratic dialogue used, the psychopathological understanding of trauma and various aspects of the therapeutic alliance are common to both CBT and EMDR approaches. Another common mechanism with both approaches would be mindfulness. During the desensitisation phase of EMDR, clients are instructed to ‘let whatever happens, happen’ and to ‘just notice what is coming up’ (Shapiro, 2001) which is consistent with mindfulness methods (Siegel, 2007).


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