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EMDR: Can rapid eye movement ease anxieties around sex?

Posted Sep 11 2012 9:30am

EMDR is a powerful psychological treatment developed by American clinical psychologist, Dr Francine Shapiro, in the 1980s. Preoccupied by disturbing thoughts when she was out walking one day, she realised that her anxieties dispersed when she moved her eyes back and forth while taking in her surroundings. Shapiro began to do further research to recreate the experience in a therapy setting. EMDR can help treat various forms of trauma from childhood sexual or physical abuse to depression and performance anxiety. Sally Jackson* describes how it has transformed her outlook and helped her to deal with anxieties around sex. 

It was four months into my work with a psychosexual counsellor that I first heard of eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. During a discussion about my anxieties around sex, I broke in down tears recalling a pregnancy scare I’d had as a teenager. Although I believed I barely thought about the incident any more – it had been over 15 years ago, after all – my counsellor wasn’t so convinced. She suggested that the worry and shame I’d experienced at that time were unconsciously affecting my sex life, even now. I’d spent three years attributing my low libido and dyspareunia to a stressful caseload whilst working in child protection, but I told her I’d look into the therapist she recommended. It’s been just two months since then, and with five EMDR sessions under my belt, I feel transformed.

Arriving for my assessment session, I was equal parts apprehensive and sceptical. However, my concerns were soon allayed by my wonderfully level-headed EMDR therapist. Crucially for me, she had undergone the therapy herself and was therefore able to explain the process first hand. She described it in layman’s terms: when something new and traumatic occurs, our brain doesn’t have the information to process it sufficiently, and some incidents can become ‘trapped’. EMDR would move the trapped memories from the front of my brain to the back, rather like a filing system. I would still remember the traumatic events, but I would no longer experience any strong emotional or physical reactions when thinking of them.

Also at this assessment session, the therapist took a full history of my traumatic experiences. She explained it was necessary to target the earliest trauma first, then move forward, clearing each consecutive trauma from my brain. So the next week, arriving for my first EMDR session, we targeted the pregnancy scare.

Each session began with me choosing a negative statement related to the target issue (e.g. I did something wrong) then rating how strongly I felt about it on a scale of 1 to 10. I then chose a corresponding positive statement (e.g. I do the best that I can) and rated it again. At the end of every session, my negative rating had massively decreased, and my positive rating increased – in just one hour.

For the eye movement work in each session, my therapist used a light bar. Before she switched it on I spent a couple of minutes focusing on my negative statement and the target trauma. I was directed to think about the trauma, visualise it and try and feel it somewhere in my body. Once the lights started, all I had to do was follow them with my eyes and notice whatever came into my mind. Other than the target and statement, the therapist didn’t lead me in any way; I was in control of the thoughts and memories popping into my head. At regular intervals she would simply say, “Where are you now? Go with that.” If I became very upset, as happened frequently in my first couple of sessions, she would reassure me by saying, “Remember that’s all in the past now. You’re doing really well.”

The apparent simplicity of the therapy doesn’t, however, mean that it was easy. There were times I just wanted to close my eyes and sob, but my motivation to move on from my issues, along with my therapist’s support, helped me to force my eyes open and keep following the lights. And I did find the therapy quite draining – physically and emotionally. In the days after the first sessions I had a headache and felt generally weary. I’ll admit I was also scared to fall asleep the first night, as some people are said to experience strange dreams after EMDR – but I never experienced them. In fact, by my fourth and fifth sessions I didn’t even experience the headaches. After those final sessions I felt empowered and more positive than I had in years.

So, how successful was EMDR for me? The day after my final session, where the target trauma was painful sex, I was able to use my vaginal dilator for the first time with no anxiety. I’m still a long way from penetrative sex with my husband, but I no longer carry any guilt or anxiety about that. EMDR therapy may not have boosted my libido, but at least now I feel able to move forward more quickly with my psychosexual sessions, as we can focus on our relationship and sex life, rather than the negative memories I had unknowingly carried with me for years. 

EMDR Association UK & Ireland – find a qualified therapist

*names have been changed. 

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