Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

An article in Scientific American suggests that more than 60,000 mental health professionals have gone through some kind of formal training in the therapy technique known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). That’s a remarkably high number, considering that the technique was developed fairly recently.

The popularity could be due, in part, to the efficacy this treatment has shown in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People like this have been notoriously hard to treat, as their memories are so persistent that even mentioning them seems to cause intense distress. Those with PTSD might also be difficult to treat because they tend to medicate with drugs and alcohol, so they’re not always sober for therapy. However, EMDR has been able to break through these barriers, and this unique form of therapy seems capable of helping many people.

Underlying Principles

woman receiving emdrThe brain records information on two tracks. On the one hand, it monitors the events that take place on the outside, recording details concerning the sights, smells and sounds that the senses can detect. On the other hand, it records all of the emotions and statements that come from inside as the event unfolds. The way muscles might clench, or a heartbeat might speed up, is kept in the same brain file as the memories of the people, places and things the person encountered during the event.

Typically, the brain processes those memories and dumps the data concerning emotional responses. In the end, the person is left only with memories that came from the outside. However, if the memory was particularly traumatic, this system can break down completely. A mild reminder of the event could allow all of those inner memories to spring to the surface.

A person in a very serious car crash, for example, may struggle to remember which lane the car was in when it was struck. The color of the sky, the song on the radio and the sound of breaking glass might all be hard to describe. But if this same person saw another car moving quickly in a rearview mirror, that person might experience sweaty palms, a racing heart and the persistent thought that something isn’t right and the person just isn’t safe.

This is common for people who have PTSD, and as a result, it’s difficult for them to have happy and healthy lives. Their memories seem to conspire against them on a regular basis, making life much more difficult to endure. EMDR is designed to help people like this to process those memories, so they can jettison the unhelpful and harmful data the brain seems determined to hold onto.

How It Works

EMDR appears on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices produced by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Information. Here, experts suggest that therapy tends to progress in much the same manner, when the therapist has been specifically trained in providing this intervention to people in need.

In early sessions, therapists attempt to obtain a detailed history of the problems the person faces. Specifically, therapists attempt to isolate one memory that seems to cause the person intense pain and/or distress.

Then, the therapist provides coaching on techniques people could use to soothe their distress, which might include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Visualization of a safe place
  • Repetition of a comforting word or mantra

When patients have mastered these techniques, therapists ask them to describe the event in detail, paying close attention to the negative thoughts they encounter and the sensations the body experiences. During these talks, which tend to last for about 30 seconds, patients are asked to follow the therapist’s moving finger using the eyes only. Any sensations of distress the patient might feel are attacked with the techniques taught early in the session.

These 30-second bouts are repeated over and over until the patient can recount the incident without feeling physical distress or sensing negative thoughts. Then, the person is asked to think of a more positive lesson that could emerge from the incident. The hand movements are repeated, as the person recounts the incident again while thinking about the positive lesson.

Why Does It Work?

Experts aren’t entirely sure why this specific form of therapy tends to make people feel better. Some believe that it works by mimicking the movements the eyes might make during deep portions of sleep. This is the time in which the brain tends to process memories and ditch unhelpful responses, so it’s reasonable to suggest that repeating the movements that take place during deep sleep would bring about the same kind of memory processing results. However, some studies, including one in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, suggest that eye motions aren’t really helpful, as the therapy tends to provide the same kinds of benefits whether the eyes move or not.

It’s possible, however, that EMDR works because it provides people with PTSD with the opportunity to simply reexamine a memory they’ve been avoiding.

This is a kind of exposure therapy, in which people are asked to approach an incident that they once found distressing and upsetting, but this reexamination takes place in a safe and controlled environment. People learn that the memory doesn’t have the ability to cause them current harm, when exposure therapies are in play, and the skills people are taught at the beginning of therapy might allow them to deal with their memories outside of the therapy room without falling apart in the process. Just talking could be key.

Research on this topic is ongoing, and it’s likely that experts will continue to delve into how eye movements and talking really help people with PTSD. But these issues may not be intriguing for people struggling with their memories. They may just want reassurance that the therapy actually works, even if they can’t explain why that’s the case. Thankfully, there’s ample research that suggests that clients can benefit from this therapy.

Real Benefits

People with PTSD often expect to spend months or even years in therapy, since the symptoms they face due to their disorder can be so debilitating and severe. While traditional treatment may very well take months to complete, particularly for people who have a drug addiction issue that complicates PTSD recovery, the EMDR portion of the treatment process might not take very long at all.

In a study of the issue, in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found that 67 percent of people who had EMDR had recovered from PTSD in only eight sessions. It’s a short period of time, to be sure, but the therapy seemed so helpful to these people that they just didn’t meet the official diagnostic criteria for the serious form of PTSD. Just a short stint seemed to do the trick and help them to heal.

If the therapy progresses properly, people who complete the work might experience:

  • Improved sleep, with no nightmares
  • Fewer flashbacks of the event
  • Increased ability to handle triggers of the old memory
  • Improved ability to squelch minor feelings of distress before they escalate

These benefits could allow people to handle day-to-day life with a smaller amount of misery, and they might also assist with an underlying drug abuse problem. After all, people who are functioning a little better each day might not feel the need to delve into addictive drugs to sedate their misery. These could be intense benefits that only EMDR can deliver.

Working with The Oaks at La Paloma

As a Dual Diagnosis facility, we specialize in assisting people who have both addictions and mental illnesses. As such, we’ve helped many people who struggle with PTSD, and our trauma resolution program is designed to provide them with targeted help. EMDR is a big part of the work provided in our trauma resolution program, but we also offer wraparound talk therapy and support group work, so people can really process the pain and move forward into a healthier, happier life.

If you’d like to find out more about this remarkable program and the talented staff members who run it, please call us. We’re happy to answer your questions or provide you with information on enrollment.