EMDR Therapy: Why Looking Left-To-Right Repeatedly Could Banish Traumatic Memories

By Natasha Hinde

What if we told you that distressing memories could be wiped away by moving your eyes from left to right, over and over again?

While it might sound like something out of a modern day Sci-Fi film, there is a very real therapy which helps people deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxietydepression and stress, in this way.

Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.

During a typical session, a client will be asked to target a particularly distressing memory. They will then be encouraged to move their eyes from left to right.

The therapy has been used to treat people who have gone through incredibly traumatic events – including a PTSD sufferer who was on the same carriage as a 7/7 bomber and the mother of a murder victim.


Dr Robin Logie, chartered clinical psychologist and former president of the EMDR Association in the UK and Ireland, explained  that moving your eyes helps to reduce a person’s emotional reaction to an event.

“You are more able to evaluate and process it in a detached way,” he said.

You might be thinking it sounds a lot like hypnotism, but according to the EMDR Association it isn’t.

“Even though you are moving your eyes during EMDR you will remain conscious AND in control at all times. EMDR cannot be done against your will,” the site explains.

So how does it work?

When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory.

As the EMDR association website explains: “The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level.”

When a person recalls a distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, which can be intense.

By alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, patients can stimulate the “frozen” information processing system.

During the process, the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity so that the memories are less distressing and seem more like ‘ordinary’ memories.

Dr Adam Simon, chief medical officer at PushDoctor.co.uk, said: “EMDR is one of the recognised treatments for PTSD.

“In essence, it’s not all that different from other forms of psychotherapy, where the distressing event is recounted and associated with relaxation exercises to try and desensitise the body’s reaction to that distressing, or stressful, event.

“However, in this case, the relaxation exercises are replaced by rapid eye movement, which are similar to those found during the deep, dream-inducing REM sleep.

“The aim is that in recreating this experience, the effect of the traumatic event will be reduced to the point that the patient can cope with it far more easily.”

Dr Helen Webberley, the dedicated GP for Oxford Online Pharmacy said that pushing distressing thoughts to the back of the mind can be “very damaging”.

“Repressed memories can manifest as dreams, nightmares and flashbacks. They can interfere with daily activities for many years and often the person has no idea what is holding them back.”

She continued: “Traditional counselling is useful when the person knows what it is that is bothering them, but when the issue has been suppressed or hidden, then counselling and psychotherapy may not identify the problem.

“Clinical hypnotherapy and EMDR have been shown to be very useful in some cases, and have really helped a lot of people uncover these issues that have been stored away in the subconscious mind.

“However, as with all therapies, we must make sure that the therapist is fully qualified and competent to carry out the treatment, and is fully regulated with a professional body and has the right amount of supervision.”

Dr Nitin Shori, the medical director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor serviceand a working GP, added that the technique is not necessarily suitable for everyone.

“Your GP can advise about other types of psychological therapies too, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy,” he said.

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