When I began doing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), I had already been going to traditional therapy for several years off and on with no result. I found the conversation wandered when there wasn’t something of substance to focus on, and eventually I felt like I was wasting my money. EMDR was different, though. After my sessions, I often felt drained, like I had worked hard to forget my pain.
EMDR forces a patient to remember all the menacing details of their trauma. A newer form of alternative psychotherapy, it has grown in popularity for its ability to treat posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even though women have a statistically lower chance of experiencing trauma, they are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.
Long gone are the days of believing PTSD is exclusive to military members and veterans. PTSD occurs commonly after assaults, rapes, and car accidents but can happen to anyone who has experienced trauma. Here’s how EMDR can help those suffering from PTSD:
EMDR as Therapy
The basic idea of EMDR is this: patients are told to focus on a troubling memory, image, or negative thought while also moving their eyes back and forth, typically following a light bar. Oftentimes patients will wear headphones with a back-and-forth noise ticking. During that time patients are asked to let their minds go blank and let whatever feelings or thoughts that come to mind linger.
These steps are repeated throughout a session, gradually bringing patients back to the original thought and asking what comes up again. Before and after EMDR sessions, the counselor asks patients to rate their distress level.
EMDR works to help the mind come to terms with traumatic experiences. After a trauma occurs, individuals who develop PTSD have trouble processing what happened to them. EMDR works to help the mind process the trauma and shift the experience of it to begin to heal and let it go. The belief is that the rapid eye movements of EMDR decrease the power that emotionally charged memories have on patients’ recollections of past traumatic events.
Over time, the hope is that patients will be able to decrease the power of these emotionally charged memories. Common symptoms of PTSD are flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, negative thoughts and beliefs, insomnia, and hyperarousal. Through EMDR, the memories patients face become less and less disabling, reducing the overall symptoms of PTSD.
A Brief History of EMDR
EMDR was first discovered by Francine Shapiro in 1987 when she was walking in a park and noticed that eye movements decreased the negative emotions she felt from her own disturbing memories. She hypothesized that eye movements could desensitize individuals from their trauma.
After a while it became apparent to Shapiro that eye movements alone did not create a complete therapeutic effect. She began adding other treatments like cognitive therapy and developed the guidelines and base standards for what at the time she called “eye movement desensitization” (EMD).
Shapiro conducted a study where she assigned 22 individuals who had experienced trauma to two different therapies. Half of the patients received EMD therapy, and the other half received a similar therapy except without the rapid eye movements. Her reports showed that EMD significantly decreased patients’ traumatic stress and increased their confidence and positivity. Those that received EMD reported significantly larger changes than those who did not receive it.
In 1991, Sharpiro changed the name of her therapy to “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing” (EMDR) to reflect the cognitive changes that came from treatment. Because of the many benefits of EMDR she saw in her patients, she felt obligated to teach other counselors the basics of the technique so their patients suffering from PTSD could also find some relief. In 1995, after many more controlled studies had been published and the “experimental” phase of EMDR came to a close, official guidelines and procedures for the therapy were established and published.
How Effective Is EMDR in the Treatment of PTSD?
Carrie Allen, a social worker in a medical center in California, says that trauma is not isolated to our brains or mental anguish. Trauma causing PTSD can come from life-threatening injuries to a person’s body, or from natural or man-made disasters.
Even in these cases, EMDR is regarded as a reputable and beneficial treatment. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted EMDR as being effective in treating symptoms of both acute and chronic PTSD. The Department of Defense as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs have issued practice guidelines for physicians to use EMDR in the clinical treatment of veterans with PTSD.
While the APA notes that extended research is still needed to determine if the benefits of EMDR are sustainable over a period of time, by most accounts, EMDR is beneficial.
I like to think of therapy as a tune up, so it makes sense to me that EMDR is not a fix-all method of therapy. It’s just one of the many pieces of a puzzle that can help individuals deal with their demons.
When I was originally diagnosed with PTSD, I found myself dozing in and out of reality a lot. I would blank out entire days and weeks of my life, banking on the idea that one day I would wake up and be fine. The truth was, without therapy and EMDR, I don’t believe I would have ever gotten past the memories that kept me down for so long.
If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.
Author Bio: Billie Peacock is a fifth-generation Idahoan who spent her childhood soaking up all that nature has to offer. In her free time these days, she enjoys deconstructing the mysteries of the world, writing, and lobbying for civil liberties.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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2 thoughts on “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) for the Treatment of PTSD”
wondering if you have any links to evidence as in research findings. I find the theory and testimony compelling but thats not “proof.”
wondering if you have links to any research, I am aware the theory, history and testimonies, but not hard research.