'Bereaved by cancer, car crash, murder and suicide - then I survived a terrorist attack. Prince Harry's EMDR therapy helped me cope'
Walking into the dentist’s surgery, Ali Smith could feel her legs trembling beneath her. Heart racing, head pounding, she felt on the edge of a panic attack.
‘It always happened when I was in even a mildly anxious situation,’ says Ali, 51, from Lincolnshire. ‘I’d get uncontrollable tremors and would feel extremely triggered.
"My sleep was erratic, it had been years since I had had a good night’s rest and it was at this point that I realized I was still carrying trauma in my body from the events that had happened in my past.
"It was unprocessed, even after years of therapy. I’d tried medication, counselling, hypnotherapy, but I needed something else. And that’s when I found Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)."
When Prince Harry recently revealed that he had processed some of his own past traumatic memories with EMDR therapy, which involves the tapping of hands and a pattern of eye movements, some onlookers were understandably sceptical.
But the therapy has a host of other celebrity fans including GMB presenter Kate Garraway and former Spice Girl Mel B who claim it also helped them with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
EMDR is also recognised by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) as a treatment for PTSD and patients can be referred for treatment on the NHS – although the waiting list is often long.
Read more: The transformation was life-saving’: How EMDR therapy changed one woman’s life after the death of her mother
Ali, a married mother-of-one had more trauma than most people to process. Born in South Africa, she was only nine when she lost her mother to kidney disease.
Only a few years later, her elder sister Susan was tragically killed by a drunk driver in a motorbike accident at the age of just 19.
"When you’re a child you don’t really understand what’s going on with grief and my father’s way of coping was to brush everything under the carpet and always show a brave face so that’s what I did too," says Ali.
"There was no such thing as grief counselling back then, but my ‘therapy’ was to join a youth group and become a Christian. That became an anchor in my life.
"But those early traumas still manifested themselves and in my 20s, I made a series of bad decisions with relationships and men who were emotionally unavailable or treated me badly."
Watch: Prince Harry and Evan Rachel Wood do EMDR therapy
Incredibly, those early traumas were to be compounded for Ali when she was involved in a catalogue of other tragedies. The first, in 1993, happened when she was among the congregation in the St James’ Church massacre in a Cape Town church which saw 11 people killed and 58 injured.
"I was with a friend when three masked gunmen came in and opened fire on the congregation,’ recalls Ali.
"We dropped to the ground and all we could hear was firing until someone with a gun chased them out of the building. When I got up off the floor, it was carnage, people badly mutilated and crying.
"I actually don’t remember much of it because my body went into shock. The PTSD kicked in later on, I experienced nightmare and would have flashbacks. I’d wake in fear and panic.
"I became hyper-vigilant and hated going to busy places like shopping malls. I did have some therapy, but it didn’t really address the PTSD."
Then, in 1995, her stepbrother was murdered and two years later Ali’s best friend killed herself.
"My life really was like some kind of bizarre film," explains Ali. "I tried other kinds of therapy but again, they never really tackled the trauma.
"I had a good, well-paid career in healthcare and pharmaceuticals and my husband Darren and I were happy and had our son Oliver, who is now 16. But my PTSD was escalating, even though I was trying to keep a lid on it.
"When I started with tremors at places like the dentist, I realised I needed help with the underlying cause."
Having always had an interest in personal development, Ali left her job to train as an NLP practitioner and clinical hypnotherapist, which is how she discovered EDMR.
"I’d done a lot of research and there are several studies that show the effectiveness for this therapy on treating PTSD," says Ali. "I had a series of one-hour sessions with a fantastic therapist and it completely transformed my life.
Read more: Prince Harry says he uses EMDR trauma therapy to ease his anxiety. Here's how it works.
"Even after the first session, I felt the ‘heaviness’ of some of those memories lift. It was as if I could look back on them but not feel the distressing emotional response I’d felt in the past. The tremors stopped, my sleep improved and my anxiety levels came right down."
Now a trauma specialist who practices EDMR on her clients, Ali says she is grateful to Prince Harry for demystifying the therapy and removing some of the stigma about mental health.
"Much of what he was saying resonated with me because we both lost our mothers at a young age," she says.
"But his words will have helped so many to realise that they don’t have to suffer in silence when it comes to childhood trauma – and that there are ways for it to be healed."
Watch: EMDR helped her overcome paralyzing grief