Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a technique developed by Francine Shapiro to treat conditions such as PTSD. For individuals interested in working with trauma victims or veterans, a firm understanding of this therapy and the varying positions therapists take towards its use is vital. In the following article, we’ll investigate aspects of therapeutic use, features of the treatment, and potential issues surrounding it.
What It Treats
Although this therapeutic approach is still in the youthful phases of development through application, it has shown promise. In fact, in various analyses, it appeared to be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy or the use of SSRIs to inhibit or reduce the impact of traumatic memories. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has also been applied with some success to conditions such as panic attacks, complex grieving, disturbing memories, phobias, pain disorders, sexual assault, body dysmorphic disorder, personality and dissociative disorders, and many other types of distress.
The concept underpinning the use of eye movement to destabilize a panic reaction within the brain relates to memory storage. When we experience a disturbing, violent or otherwise deeply traumatic event, the sensory data is not fully investigated. Instead, our brains store the information as incomplete memories with a chemical tag instructing us to return to them for later parsing. The biggest problem seems to be that we do return to the memories, yet we repeat the cycle of incomplete processing with all the trimmings of trauma, grief, and horror. Side-to-side eye movement during the recall, mainly but not exclusively, is thought to derail this incomplete loop.
But why does moving the eyes seem to press the reset button for our brains? In this therapy, the patient recalls the memory causing them trouble while the therapist guides them through a series of eye movements. They then ask the patient what arises in their minds and instruct them to hold that image while enacting another set of eye movements. While still controversial, these eye movements distract the patient for the duration of the investigation, preventing them from focusing on feeling the emotions of the traumatic memory.
In those with PTSD, sleep is often a valuable commodity, scarce and fleeting. Shapiro argues that the side-to-side eye movements in her therapy are essential for processing strong emotion and are modeled on natural eye motion during REM sleep. While sleep researchers now know that we dream at every phase of sleep, they believe that the most intense dreaming occurs during this period.
In recent years, researchers have also discovered that our dreams are anything but pleasant, usually composed of horrific and fantastical events as our brains attempt to prepare us for the worst in the waking world. Then, the observation of eye movement and its correlation to the processing of intense or unpleasant emotions would seem to validate why Shapiro’s therapy has proven successful for quite a few individuals.
While it hasn’t been successful in all cases, EMDR is advocated for use with children who have had traumatic experiences, instead of more aggressive or drug-dependent therapies. Because it still lacks a cohesive theoretical framework, some psychologists cast doubt upon its efficacy, but eye movement desensitization and redirection has a substantial body of empirical proof and may one day gain the support of the entire therapeutic community.