Prince Harry has a new docuseries out with Oprah Winfrey on AppleTV called The Me You Can't See. In the third episode of the series, he opens up about how much therapy has helped him—and even allows cameras to film him undergoing a certain form of therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
During the episode, the Duke of Sussex said that he's done therapy for about five years, noting that a therapist is "someone who can help guide us, create that awareness in our own life to when we might be feeling pain and how to get out of that." EMDR, Harry said, is "always something that I wanted to try," adding that he "never would have been open to that had I not put in the work in the therapy that I've done over the years."
In the session, Harry said that he's "always felt worried, concerned, a little bit tense and uptight," in London, where he used to live. Harry said that therapy helped him to become "aware" of how he felt about the city. "I was like, 'Why do I feel so uncomfortable?' And of course, for me, London is a trigger, unfortunately, because of what happened to my mom and because of what I experienced and what I saw," he said.
Harry's mom, Princess Diana, died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 when he was 12 years old.
Harry pointed out that one of the first times he left the UK after his mom died was to go to Africa. "I think I was out there for at least two weeks and it was such a cure. I just felt so free," he recalled. "It was a sense of escapism that I'd never felt before. And then to come back to the UK, knowing what I was going to be confronted with, and knowing what I couldn't get away from was scary." He also said that, "the trauma is very much geographical."
EMDR seems to have helped Harry as part of his therapy journey—but what is it exactly, and who does it usually benefit? Here's what you need to know.
What is EMDR?
EMDR—again, known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—is a form of therapy that was specifically designed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The goal of EMDR is to help patients process upsetting memories, thoughts, and feelings related to the trauma they suffered, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD.
EMDR was developed in 1987, and it's a therapy that's usually done one to two times a week for a total of six to 12 sessions, per the American Psychological Association (APA).
How does EMDR work?
The therapy itself incorporates the use of eye movements or other bilateral stimulation (BLS) like tones, or taps when a patient talks about their traumatic memory to help reduce the vividness and emotion of the memory. During a session, you pay attention to the movement or sound while you think or talk about the disturbing memory until your brain shifts the way you experience that memory, and more information from that past is processed, the National Center for PTSD says.
According to the APA, EMDR therapy uses a specific eight-phase approach that usually includes:
- Phase 1: History-taking and treatment planning. This is when a therapist consults with a patient to determine triggers and goals for treatment.
- Phase 2: Preparation. During this phase, the therapist explains the treatment process to the patient and practices the eye movement or other BLS technique.
- Phase 3: Assessment. The traumatic memory being targeted is identified in this phase, and a therapist assesses how it affects a patient.
- Phase 4: Desensitization. The client focuses on the traumatic memory during this phase while practicing the eye movements or other BLS, and then reports how they feel after.
- Phase 5: Installation. This phase "strengthens" the preferred reactions to trauma that EMDR can bring out.
- Phase 6: Body scan. Clients are tasked with observing their physical response to their specific trauma and the preferred reaction during this phase.
- Phase 7: Closure. This is the end of the session, where the therapist provides specific instructions and techniques to work on until the next session.
- Phase 8: Re-evaluation. The next therapy session starts with the last phase, to evaluate how the previous therapy session went and how to further improve.
The idea behind EMDR, the APA says, is that trauma continues to cause distress because the memory was never correctly processed. Those unprocessed memories hold the patient's emotions, thoughts, beliefs and physical sensations that happened at the time of the event and, when those memories are triggered, a person can experience the trauma and have symptoms of PTSD or other mental health disorders.
EMDR therapy tries to change the way that particular memories are stored in the brain, reducing and getting rid of symptoms.
Who benefits the most from EMDR?
EMDR is designed to help people who suffer from PTSD, a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
Symptoms of PTSD usually start within three months of the trauma, but they can also happen years later, the NIMH says. Symptoms have to last more than a month and be severe enough to interfere with a person's relationships. Those symptoms include:
- Flashbacks (reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating)
- Bad dreams
- Frightening thoughts
- Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
- Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event
- Being easily startled
- Feeling tense or "on edge"
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Having angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
- Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
What else do you need to know about EMDR?
Per the National Center for PTSD, EMDR may make people feel uncomfortable when focusing on traumatic memories or beliefs, though that discomfort is temporary and most people who practice EMDR say the benefits outweigh any of that initial discomfort.
It should also be noted that, while EMDR is a recommended therapy for PTSD, research is mixed on whether the movements, tones, or taps are necessary. One older study, published in the journal Comprehensive Psychology, compared the results of EMDR with therapy that involved a fixed eye movement condition (where patients kept their eyes straight ahead) and found that there was no difference in outcomes.
That doesn't mean EMDR isn't helpful, though. "Results suggest that eye movements do not play a significant role in processing of traumatic information in EMDR and that factors other than eye movements are responsible for EMDR's therapeutic effect," the researchers concluded.
If you are interested in trying EMDR, the APA has a psychologist locator that lets you find a mental health therapist near you. Once you enter in your zip code, you can refine your results to look for EMDR providers in your area.
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