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What is EMDR therapy? Prince Harry uses it to cope with anxiety

The therapy focuses on movements to make a traumatic memory less vivid and emotional.
The Duke Of Sussex Visits Abbey Road Studios
Prince Harry said that his anxiety is often triggered by his trips to London. Hannah McKay / Getty Images

In a conversation with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry opened up about the therapy he is using to treat unresolved anxiety about the death of his mother, the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

The discussion, which was shown on the Apple TV+ documentary series "The Me You Can't See," came alongside revelations about Harry's feelings towards the royal family and other comments about mental health. The Duke of Sussex said that he hoped his candid statements would help alleviate stigma around mental health struggles and treatment.

The third episode of the five-part series shows Harry undergoing EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy to treat his anxiety. EMDR is also used to treat things like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Dr. Vaile Wright, the senior director of the American Psychological Association, said that EMDR works by using bilateral stimulation — movements that occur in a rhythmic patten, going from left to right — like horizontal eye movements. In the series, Harry is shown tapping on his shoulders, which Wright said is also an option.

"What makes (EMDR) kind of unique is that it uses bilateral stimulation ... done in thirty-second sets while the client simultaneously is focusing on aspects of a maladaptive memory," said Wright. "The therapy really focuses on processing a memory while you're engaging in some sort of task."

Wright said that the therapy is supposed to make the traumatic memories "less vivid and emotional" and is supposed to "facilitate physiological relaxation." The treatment is also supposed to increase cognitive flexibility, and during the treatment, the client and their doctor will discuss the maladaptive memory, possible triggers and ways to deal with those triggers. Wright said that someone may pair EMDR therapy with other medication or talk therapy, depending on their situation.

Harry said that his anxiety is often triggered by his trips to London. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said he was "worried" and "afraid" when returning to London for the April funeral of his grandfather, Prince Philip.

"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," Harry said in the Apple TV+ documentary. "Of course, for me, London is a trigger, unfortunately, because of what happened to my mum and what I experienced and what I saw."

Right now, EMDR is "conditionally recommended" by the APA, but Wright said that doesn't mean there isn't evidence to support the treatment.

"About seven years ago, the APA developed a clinical practice guideline for treatments for PTSD," Wright explained. "The conditional recommendation is because, at that point in time, EMDR had just slightly less robust research support compared to some of the other treatments, like cognitive processing therapy ... A conditional recommendation isn't saying that it's not an effective treatment. It is an effective treatment, it just didn't have the same level of robust research as some of the others."

Wright said that it's likely that as the APA continues to update their guidelines, it's likely that "more research" will have come out to "add additional support."

In the series, Harry said that he hopes his focus on therapy would have made his mother proud.

"I'm living the life that she wanted to live for herself, the life that she wanted us to be able to live," he said. "Not only do I know that she's incredibly proud of me, but that she's helped me get here."