Hope for Trauma Survivors: The Promising Science of EMDR

One of the most horrifying aspects of post traumatic stress is the fact that after a terrifying event has occurred, its ghosts remain in the victim’s psyche for months and years after its completion. For decades, those who struggled with trauma in every form were given very few options for psychological healing. While there have been some major strides in the mental health community, perhaps none are so encouraging as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Countless testimonials abound regarding its effectiveness. So what exactly is EMDR?

EMDR was first discovered by mere chance by Dr. Francine Shapiro when she was taking a walk and could not shake distressing thoughts from her mind. By chance, she noticed that the more she shifted her eyes from side to side, the more her distressing thoughts
disappeared. As a psychology graduate student at the time, she decided to research further into the unusual phenomenon she witnessed. She developed and researched the technique, and thus EMDR was born. This groundbreaking therapy has been most often used for those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but more recently, it has begun to make a difference in those with destructive thoughts of all kinds.

Studies have shown that it a sense, it can quite literally heal the mind the same way a bodily injury can be healed. By reprocessing thoughts and utilizing both sides of the brain, the distressing thoughts because less potent over time. Because of its proven effectiveness, over 100,000 clinicians use it in practices today, and it has had successful outcomes in over 30 outcome studies. Because of this, it has been accepted and encouraged by the World Health Organization, the American Psychiatric Association, and the Department of Defense. Seven out of ten studies declare that EMDR was quicker and more effective than the traditional method of trauma-focused cognitive therapy. Likewise 12 studies focusing on the eye movement component noted rapid and long-lasting decreases in negative emotions and disturbing imagery from the participant’s trauma. Not only that, but other studies have shown that EMDR has the
potential to improve the often overlooked somatic side effects of trauma. Those with histories of more complex trauma and multiple traumatic circumstances may require more sessions, but supposedly, participants with one traumatic event can have it completely resolved within five one-hour sessions. So, how exactly does EMDR work?

According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., EMDR therapies consist of eight phases. The first phase involves history-taking such as harmful, traumatic memories or current situations that are causing severe distress. The second phase continues as the clinician works with the participant to ensure that there are coping resources available for when the official process begins. For example, healing imagery, a safe object or person, or a relaxing location can be used as a source of “resource installation” for when the memories become too overwhelming in treatment. Phases three through six are the official EMDR practice phases where the reprocessing takes place. The traumatic thought or memory is targeted for focus. A vivid visual image must come into the mind’s eye. While this occurs, the participant describes the emotions and bodily sensations that arise with the thought or memory. Once it is targeted and identified, eye
movements, taps, or tones are stimulated bilaterally by moving one’s eyes back and forth, holding vibrating tappers in both hands or listening to tones as they occur one after another. While this process proceeds, these sensations give the brain more productive processes for coping with the memory. Usually, the stimulation occurs no longer than half a minute at a time, depending on the severity of the memory. Participants discuss new connections made with the clinician. As the distressing memory is targeted, the clinician will then bring in the healing object, person, and/or relaxing imagery into the scene of the trauma. By the end of the session, there
should be less measurable distress and more feelings of comfort and resolve. The seventh phase involves the clinician asking the participant to keep an eye on new thoughts and insights that arise between sessions. Along with that, the clinician encourages the participant to utilize the same coping techniques used in the EMDR session in everyday life. The eighth phase involves a comprehensive examination pertaining to the progress of previous sessions.

To put into more personal terms, imagine that a woman partakes in EMDR therapy to receive help in coping with the trauma of losing her father as a child. In the first phase, she would explain the trauma of losing her father and the distress that came from such a
monumental loss. For the second phase, she would develop mental images and sensations that nurture and comfort such as a beautiful place in nature and her loving pets. She would need to develop these images fully before reprocessing the trauma. In phases three through six, she would sit with her therapist with vibrating tappers in both hands on opposite sides of her body. She would bring up the traumatic moment of seeing her father die, the tension in her body, and the emotions of helplessness and devastation. She would detail everything she noticed in each moment of the traumatic period. The taps would stop and she would detail what she witnessed
to the clinician. This process would continue until she was prompted to bring in a comforting person, idea, or image into the memory. The woman would place her loving pets in the hospital room with her and imagine her current self comforting her younger self who was witnessing the trauma. This process would continue on for a few more rounds of bilateral taps. The woman would notice her distress decreasing, her muscles relaxing, and her thoughts becoming less burdened. At the end of the session, she would be encouraged to continue to notice things until the next time. Likewise, her progress would be discussed. Afterwards, she will have conquered
a devastating aspect of her traumatic memory, whether it be the negative self-beliefs or the harmful thoughts that arose from that time. She may experience less traumatic dreams, decreased anxiety, and rediscovered meaning from the trauma.

While a relatively new treatment for trauma survivors, EMDR has already proven itself to be a very useful and healing tool. Some may benefit more than others or require more patience and practice for the process in order to produce benefits. Regardless, trauma survivors should feel uplifted and hopeful that the ghosts of their pasts need not haunt them any longer. By
simply thinking of a harmful memory and moving the eyes back and forth, distress can be decreased. It can be used as a simple coping technique during times of stress, and for those fortunate enough to have access to a clinician, EMDR can be nothing short of life changing.

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