What is EMDR? A closer look at the therapy Prince Harry uses to cope with anxiety

CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — Prince Harry revealed that he benefits from EMDR therapy to cope with his anxiety in a multi-part documentary series that delves into mental health and emotional well-being, co-produced with Oprah Winfrey. But what is EMDR and how does it work?

Aimed at reducing the stigma around mental health, Harry and Winfrey spoke in detail about their own histories of trauma and anxiety in “The Me You Can’t See,” released on Apple TV+ Friday.

In episode three of “Finding What Works,” Harry, formally known as the Duke of Sussex, is seen undergoing a form of therapy known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to treat anxiety.

“For most of my life I’ve always felt worried, concerned, a little bit tense, and uptight when I fly back to the U.K., when I fly back into London,” said Harry in the episode, describing a recurring anxiety-inducing situation. “Of course for me, London is a trigger, unfortunately, because of what happened to my mum and what I experienced and what I saw.”

In 1997, Princess Diana died in a car crash at the age of 36 in Paris while being pursued by paparazzi. Referencing his lifelong memories of “helplessness,” his anger at the media and his stifled grieving process after his mother’s death, when he was 12, Harry revealed he’s been in therapy for over four and half years.

In the episode, Harry meets with London psychotherapist, Sanja Oakley, over a video telehealth appointment and engages in EMDR therapy. While recounting his feelings of flying back into London, Harry with his arms crossed over his chest, alternates gently tapping his own shoulders.

“We are providing bilateral stimulation by either getting the person to move their eyes or tapping on them or they are tapping on themselves,” said Oakely in the docuseries.

Bilateral stimulation is only one component of EMDR’s eight-phase approach resulting in positive therapeutic outcomes according to the National Institute of Health. In addition to eye movement and tapping, other variations of bilateral stimulation can include auditory tones, using rhythmic snaps, stomping, drumming, or the use of stress balls in hands.

“It pairs the cognitive recollection of the trauma with a powerful memory of being safe…. ultimately creates a new default of the memory,” summed up psychiatrist Bruce Perry in the episode. Perry is a senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas.

“I quickly think of EMDR for any of my patients with PTSD but it can also be effective for those suffering from phobias, chronic nightmares and even complicated grief,” said psychiatrist and family medicine physician Laurie Carrier.

EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue; reliving the trauma at great length or completing homework between sessions and is designed to address unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain, according to EMDR International Assocication.

“We often feel limited in our treatment options for trauma-related diagnoses. While medications might be helpful for symptoms related to the trauma, they certainly are not curative. EMDR is much more effective in eliminating the emotional distress related to the past trauma,” added Carrier who oversees clinical operations at Heartland Health Centers in Chicago.

Clinical psychologist and author John Duffy described EMDR as a relatively new technique with brief sessions lasting no more than half-hour to an hour, with surprising efficiency.

“This combination of the emotional and behavioral typically resolves the intensity of the impact of the trauma, and it does so quickly,” Duffy said.

“A lot of people are understandably skeptical, as it looks and sounds a lot like hypnosis or other perhaps less well-researched techniques. But EMDR truly does seem to remove the emotional blocks that prevent us from processing trauma, something we have an aversion to revisiting, but need to in order to recover. Left untouched, we continuously carry our trauma with us,” Duffy added.

According to The American Psychological Association (APA), clinical observations suggest that an accelerated learning process is stimulated by EMDR’s standardized procedure so results may indeed be hastened in comparison to other therapies.

Sessions can be one to two times per week for a total of 6-12 sessions, although some people benefit from fewer sessions. Sessions can be conducted on consecutive days, according to the APA. The treatment focuses directly on the memory, rather than altering emotions, thoughts or responses.

This image provided by Harpo Productions shows Prince Harry, left, and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, in conversation with Oprah Winfrey. “Oprah with Meghan and Harry: A CBS Primetime Special” aired March 7, 2021. Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions via AP, File.

Harry credits his wife Meghan for encouraging him to seek therapy.

“I quickly established that if this relationship was going to work that I was going to have to deal with my past because there was anger there and it wasn’t anger at her, it was just anger. She recognized it, she saw it,” he said.

The series will feature personal stories from athletes and stars like Lady Gaga and Glenn Close. In addition, NBA players DeMar DeRozan and Langston Galloway, Olympic boxer Virginia “Ginny” Fuchs and chef Rashad Armstead will be spotlighted.

Harry and Meghan’s departure from royal duties began in March 2020 over what they described as the British media’s intrusions and racist attitudes toward the duchess. In a wide-ranging, two-hour interview with Oprah the couple shared the difficulties of royal life that caused mental and emotional strife, even leading Meghan to feel suicidal during the pregnancy of their first child, Archie.

The couple have dived heavily into streaming ventures in their post-royal life, signing a deal with Netflix. Meghan has also narrated a documentary for Disney+ and published a children’s book.

“Therapy has equipped me to take on anything, that’s why I’m here now, that’s why my wife is here now. Without therapy, without doing the work, we would not be able to withstand this,” Harry said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.