EMDR: Delving into the trauma therapy used by Prince Harry

In the new mental health documentary series, The Me You Can’t See, Prince Harry is seen undergoing a form of therapy known as EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) to ease anxiety relating to the trauma of the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, when he was 12.

In the series, Prince Harry tells Oprah Winfrey that unresolved feelings surrounding his loss caused him to suffer anxiety and severe panic attacks from the age of 28 to 32.

“I was just all over the place mentally,” he says. “Every time I put a suit on and tie on … having to do the role, and go, ‘Right, game face’, look in the mirror and say, ‘Let’s go’. Before I even left the house I was pouring with sweat. I was in fight or flight mode.”

The duke allowed cameras into his therapy session, in an attempt to destigmatise seeking help for mental health issues.

How was EMDR discovered?
In 1987, US psychologist Francine Shapiro made a discovery while walking in the park. She was thinking about some recent traumatic events in her life and, as she was walking and thinking, she noticed her eyes moving back and forth.

As her eyes moved, she realised the distressing feelings surrounding these events were lessening. Ms Shapiro began researching the link between bilateral eye movement and diminishing anxiety.

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Ms Shapiro tested the approach on others and over time built up a standardised psychological therapy for treating people with traumatic memories.

She named the approach eye movement desensitisation (EMD) and later changed the name to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

How does it work?
EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that works on desensitising anxiety and reprocessing traumatic memories.

Vice-president of Clinical Development for Spectrum Health Systems, Dr Romas Buivydas, says EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. “It identifies and addresses traumatic experiences that have overwhelmed the brain’s natural coping capacity, and, as a result, have created traumatic symptoms such as flashbacks or anxiety, or harmful coping strategies such as isolating behaviour and self-medication with alcohol or drugs.”

During the sessions, the EMDR therapist will reconnect the client to images, self-thoughts, emotions and body sensations associated with the trauma while making certain eye movements. Re-experiencing the trauma in a safe and controlled environment allows the brain to process the emotions without becoming overwhelmed.

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Healing occurs when the brain can manage the feelings that arise when the client thinks about their trauma, and there’s a significant reduction in distress and anxiety.

Research has shown trauma victims can experience a reduction in symptoms within a few sessions. It has been found to be particularly effective when used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Who uses EMDR?
The therapy is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and the World Health Organization for PTSD and it is used for a variety of problems brought on by past trauma.

EMDR has also been endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association, the United Kingdom Department of Health, and the Israeli National Council for Mental Health.

According to the EMDR Research Foundation, there are now more than 30 gold standard studies documenting the effectiveness of EMDR therapy over the past 30 years with problems such as rape and sexual abuse, combat trauma, childhood trauma and neglect, life-threatening accidents, and symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Certified EMDR practitioner Edy Nathan is a licensed psychotherapist, with more than 20 years’ experience, who believes that this type of therapy can heal people suffering from all types of trauma.

“What the technique does is shift the way we process the presence of the physical, emotional and psychological effects related specifically to a traumatic event,” she says.

“The pain and sense of danger carried within the self after a traumatic event grips the soul with such purchase that it leads into a sense of being in emotional quicksand. EMDR works to disarm belief systems, also known as cognitions, and changes the negative cognition through a series of lateral eye movements, tapping or sound, while the client is asked to create the picture of pain and danger (trauma) that most disturbs them.”

How is EMDR different to other therapies?
In EMDR, you don’t have to divulge every detail of your painful experience to be dissected by a therapist. This means it’s particularly useful for people who have difficulty recalling or opening up about their trauma.

EMDR also typically yields fast results. Many clients report positive changes after just three sessions. While everyone’s journey is different, EMDR is often completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.

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Despite the encouraging research findings, EMDR is not the only form of therapy appropriate for people dealing with anxiety, PTSD, or panic attacks. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the most common form of therapy, and rational emotional behavioural therapy (REBT) is another form of therapy you might consider.

EMDR therapy is not complete until attention has been brought to the past memories that are contributing to the problem, the present situations that are disturbing, and what skills the client may need for the future.

Where EMDR can help
Originally designed to treat PTSD, EMDR is now used to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including:

  • addictions
  • anxiety
  • chronic pain
  • depression
  • eating disorders
  • panic attacks
  • panic disorder
  • phobias

EMDR can be used on its own or in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques (such as CBT) and medications.

Have you heard about EMDR? Have you watched The Me You Can’t See? Share your thoughts on talking about and recovering from mental health issues in the comments section below.

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Ellie Baxter