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What is EMDR?

EMDR is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. Frances Shapiro developed it in 1986. She found that eye movements reduce the intensity of disturbing thoughts and feelings under certain conditions. EMDR is a method for alleviating the impact of traumatic incidents such as car accidents, assault, explosions and war. More recently it is effectively being used to treat non-trauma related issues such as panic disorder, anxiety and low self-esteem, amongst others. It consists of a series of brief alternating eye movements whilst thinking about the trauma material. The eye movements will normally be due to following the practitioner’s hand movements however tapping can also be used. EMDR is a three-pronged approach that tackles: 1) difficult feelings, thoughts and behaviours in the present; 2) challenging feelings and thoughts connected to a past traumatic event, 3) difficult thoughts and feelings connected to a future event.

What is the underlying premise of EMDR?

When trauma occurs the brain is overwhelmed with strong emotions such as fear and terror. The fight, flight or freeze instinct in the brain takes over and the cortex, responsible for thinking processes, goes offline. Unless the cognitive function of the processes these intense emotions after the trauma, the fight, flight or freeze reaction stays on high alert and reacts to other stimuli that resemble the trauma, in a way that seems irrational to the individual. For this reason a person may break out in a cold sweat and their heart races every time they enter a van, having experienced a crash in a van as a child. Even though the person knows there is no reason to be scared in the present, as this is a different situation, their body still reacts as if anticipating the original trauma. The trauma memory remains ‘stuck’. This accounts for flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and nightmares that are common symptoms of PTSD.

 How does EMDR work?

The trauma memory is evoked and with eye movements and other techniques that cause repeated left-right (bilateral) stimulation of the brain, the difficult emotions are reprocessed until they disappear altogether. EMDR stimulates the neural networks and processes that connect the cognitive and emotional functions of the brain, integrating stuck traumatic memories so that they are made sense of and the intense emotions dissipated. This is called Adaptive Information Processing. Any negative messages such as ‘the world is a threatening place’ or “I am a bad person for letting this happen’ are replaced with more helpful and realistic ones such as ‘I am powerful’ or, “I am valuable’.

Evidence for efficacy of EMDR

Research shows that EMDR is highly effective in treating trauma and that results are long lasting. More scientifically controlled studies have been conducted on EMDR for treating PTSD than any other therapeutic modality. For information on research please see http://www.emdr-europe.org/info.asp?CategoryID=6

 Issues EMDR can help with

  • PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, disturbed sleep
  • Complex trauma such as childhood sexual, physical, emotional abuse and neglect
  • Panic disorder
  • Self –esteem
  • Medically unexplained physical symptoms, including fatigue and gastrointestinal problems.
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Addiction
  • Grief-related issues

Benefits of EMDR

  •  PTSD symptoms are alleviated.
  • Feeling more free and able to enjoy everyday life
  • Feeling less in need of adapting behaviour in order to avoid trauma reactions
  • The impact of complex trauma reduced leading to greater self-esteem and more fulfilling relationships.
  • Feeling more optimistic and prepared for future events that might previously have seemed daunting.

Individuals EMDR is suited to

EMDR can be used with a wide-range of people who have experienced trauma including those who do not speak English. It is suitable for those experiencing mild, moderate and severe mental health issues.

Treatment scales

There is no set amount of sessions however alleviation of symptoms can occur very quickly and EMDR is normally delivered over a much shorter period of time than other therapeutic treatments.

Therapists who work this way

Miri Sizak – Cohen has over 25 years’ experience as a clinical psychologist. She is fully trained in EMDR and uses it regularly in her work to treat PTSD and other types of trauma.

Alexandra Schlotterbeck has trained in EMDR and is working towards accreditation. She uses EMDR to work with both PTSD and trauma from childhood abuse.

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