Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It sounds like an alien plot to hypnotize us and turn our brains to hamburger. I was skeptical, to say the least, when my therapist suggested I try it. So I started googling. I checked out a few library books and searched journal articles to find out what this thing was supposed to do, and how it was supposed to do it.
EMDR evolved from discoveries Francine Shapiro made in the late 1980s as a PhD candidate in clinical psychology. She was taking a walk one day, a distressing thought churning in her head, when suddenly her distress vanished. She decided to pay close attention to what was happening as she walked. The next time her mind seized on a disturbing thought, her eyes began to move rapidly back and forth of their own accord. Once again, the thought vanished. When she tried to call it back, it no longer troubled her the way it had moments earlier.
Shapiro began experimenting, first on herself, then with friends and family, and got similar outcomes. In the protocol she developed, the patient holds a traumatic event in mind while the therapist guides his eyes rapidly back and forth. The published results of Shapiro’s first controlled study, done in 1988 with a group of twenty-two survivors of rape, sexual abuse and military service in Vietnam, began to draw the attention of the profession.
Today EMDR is an internationally recognized trauma treatment that more than 60,000 therapists are trained to practice. Initially, the therapist moved a finger or a pencil back and forth in front of the patient’s face, instructing her to follow it. Soon it became clear that other modes of bilateral stimulation worked as well. Some patients now wear headphones plugged into a device that makes an alternating tone from one ear to the other. Some hold touch pads that buzz between the left palm and the right. Some watch a point of light move back and forth across a light bar.
Author and clinical professor of psychiatry David Servan-Schreiber theorizes that EMDR is effective because the eye movements “capture attention” and help the patient focus on the present while accessing emotions linked to traumas from the past. He writes, “It may be this dual state of attention—one foot in the past and one foot in the present—that triggers a reorganization of the traumatic memory in the brain.”
Scott Borelli of the European EMDR Association writes that trauma-afflicted patients often live as if there were little or no difference between past events and the present. One key element of healthy human motivation and behavior, Borelli points out, is the ability to look to the future with “hope and anticipation.” Trauma freezes people in past time, creating “anxiety rather than hopeful expectation.”
I related to this state of perpetual hopelessness. In my head, there was a video clip playing in a continuous loop. I saw myself trying to walk down an ordinary street. Every movement required a terrible effort, as if my legs were strapped to cement weights. When the camera panned down, I noticed something attached to my ankles. It looked like my shadow at first. Then I realized I was dragging myself along, face down on the pavement, hands clamped like leg irons to my upright self. I watched this wordless struggle over and over and over again, believing it would never end.
EMDR erased that video clip.
I went into therapy convinced that all the interesting things about my life were finished. I expected to just go on hobbling down the street until it was time to die. Slowly, as the EMDR sessions ticked by, I found myself becoming curious about the future. About what possibilities lay in store. I pictured myself in new situations, doing things I’d been too dejected to let myself imagine. Things like making my living as a writer.
It’s funny what happens when the head learns to recognize the past as passed. Seeding the heart with hope.
You can read about trauma and EMDR and learn more about what happens in an EMDR session on my husband’s website, AndyWeisskoff.com. He’s a licensed clinical social worker who’s been using EMDR in his practice for the past eight years. (And no, he’s not my therapist.)
Have you had an experience with EMDR? Leave a comment about it.