Harry does EMDR psychotherapy on camera with Oprah - what is it and does it work?

New documentary series sees Harry showcase EMDR therapy but what is it?

Clara Hill
Friday 21 May 2021 15:33 BST
Prince Harry does EMDR psychotherapy with Oprah

Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex has experimented with EMDR, a relatively new trauma therapy in his new series The Me You Can’t See, leaving many to wonder what this mental health treatment exactly this.

The show, which is hitting the streaming service Apple TV+ on May 21, sees Harry trying EMDR, which is an acronym for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. As the name suggests, it involves a series of eye movements as part of the lengthy process of coming to terms with repressed traumatic experiences.

“EMDR is always something that I wanted to try and that was one of the varieties of different forms of healing or curing that I was willing to experiment with, and I never would have been open to that had I not put in the work and the therapy that I’ve done over the years,” he told Oprah Winfrey, who accompanied him for his session with EMDR therapist Sanja Oakley in the third episode

A famous example of his childhood trauma that he cited on the show was being urged by his family to walk behind his mother Diana’s coffin, as part of the funeral procession to Westminster Abbey in front the world’s press when he was 12 years old. Harry spoke about how it had turned the city of London into a source of trauma.

“Of course for me, London is a trigger, unfortunately. Because of what happened to my mum, and because of what I experienced and what I saw,” he said in his session.

Travel and getting away from the UK capital was something Harry found positive as he discussed going to Africa as a “cure” but “to then come back to the UK knowing what I was gonna be confronted with and knowing what I couldn’t get away from was scary.”

According to the EMDR Institute, it “is a psychotherapy that enables people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.”

It claims to provide faster healing time than with more traditional forms of psychotherapy, for issues such as poor self esteem, feeling powerless and other problems that cause people to seek help.

Extensive research has enabled it to be recognized by many health bodies including the American Psychiatric Association, The World Health Organization and the US Department of Defense.

Each individual has roughly 9 or 10 repressed memories creating the source of all our emotional turmoil, according to EMDR’s proponents.

There are eight phases in the treatment, and they are as follows;

Stage 1 - A therapist begins to understand a person’s needs and then develops a plan and selects the memories the treatment needs to focus on. There is also space dedicated to learning emotional intelligence-based skills, such as reactions in stressful situations.

Triggers can stem from childhood, such as Harry witnessing the press mistreat his mother or after the events following the car crash in Paris that killed her.

The length of phase 1 relates to how deep the trauma is. For example, an instance of trauma in adulthood can be solved in five or so hours, but some people who witnessed many stressful events, such as soldiers may need additional sessions.

Stage 2 - The practitioner makes sure that their client has many options for coping with distress, such as evoking certain imagery, that they can use outside of their care. Successful EMDR requires calm between sessions during the process.

Phase 3 to 6 - A memory is named and processed via EMDR therapy, which means the client naming strong imagery related to the memory, negative self image and the connected.

Along with this, the client names a positive belief, which is then rated alongside the intensity of the negative ones. Following this, the client is told to concentrate on the image, negative thoughts and the bodily feeling it causes.

This is in tandem with EMDR stimulation, which is a series of therapist-directed lateral eye movements, taps or tones. The duration and intensity is dependent on the client’s unique needs, and they are told to notice exactly what they experience.

The EMDR Institute says: “After the clinician has determined which memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision.”

Phase 7 - The therapist instructs the client to keep a diary of their week to hammer home what has been learnt.

Phase 8 - The following session starts here, which involves gauging the progress so far, looking at the past, present and future.

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