At first glance, “Eye Movement” Therapy, formally known as Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), may seem strange and even “hokey.” Actually, EMDR is recognized as a best practice for the treatment of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) by the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense, the World Health Organization, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies and many other organizations around the world.
EMDR is a comprehensive, evidence-based therapy for PTSD and psychological disorders resulting from adverse life events and attachment wounds due to childhood abuse and/or neglect. The goal of EMDR is to desensitize traumatic memories and liberate people from being stuck in events from the past that trigger distressing thoughts and emotions in the present. Research demonstrates that EMDR quickly and effectively targets and decreases negative beliefs and emotions, replacing them with positive, adaptive alternatives, which helps heal emotional wounds.
EMDR’s dramatic and rapid results have been highlighted in the media, most notably in regards to treating survivors of catastrophic events, such as natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, fires), terrorist attacks or combat. Trauma survivors suffering from flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, avoidance and hyper-vigilance, the hallmark symptoms of PTSD, have shown significant improvement after only one to three EMDR sessions. Studies conducted with Vietnam veterans, who suffered with PTSD for more than 20 years, provided early evidence of EMDR’s power to rapidly heal persistent symptoms that did not respond to other forms of psychotherapy or medication.
Exposure to life-threatening events, required for a diagnosis of PTSD, can produce overwhelming fear, extreme helplessness and a crushing loss of control, crippling a person’s ability to cope. These horrific events are referred to as big “T” traumas. Other experiences, though not life threatening, can be profoundly disturbing because of their personal significance. Overhearing a derogatory comment about your appearance, failing a test or losing a loved one, can produce a lost sense of safety, power, and/or control, and have long lasting consequences. Although they don’t meet the criteria for PTSD, these adverse experiences do meet the dictionary definition of trauma: “an emotional shock that creates substantial and lasting psychological damage; something that severely jars the mind or emotions.” (Shapiro & Forrest, EMDR: The Breakthrough “Eye Movement” Therapy For Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma).
Adverse childhood events include: physical, sexual or verbal abuse and/or neglect; substance abuse within the family; and parental separation, divorce, death or abandonment. These events can have a major impact on people’s lives, putting them at higher risk for psychological and medical problems. Being hurt by someone we love causes attachment wounds that produce tremendous pain, confusion and difficulty trusting others. Many children blame themselves for their caregiver’s shortcomings and see themselves as unworthy of love or somehow defective, impacting their ability to form healthy interpersonal relationships later in life.
As adults, fights with loved ones can disrupt feelings of connection and trigger intense emotional reactions that are linked to childhood attachment wounds. For this reason, it’s important for couples to examine how their childhood experiences may be contributing to their conflicts.
Intense reactions to situations, such as a fight with a friend or relative or getting cut off by another driver, are usually indicative of a trauma reaction. Much of our response to trauma is unconscious. Subconscious parts of the brain interpret the world as unsafe and threatening, even when we realize we’re overreacting and shouldn’t feel this way. We can’t reason ourselves out of feeling traumatized, which can induce feelings of shame, embarrassment and helplessness.
Negative beliefs such as, “I’m powerless,” “I’m worthless,” and “I have no control” affect a person’s relationships with others. In some cases, it can be difficult for trauma survivors to intentionally recall or even talk about what they’ve experienced because the memories are too vivid and horrific. All too often, trauma survivors numb themselves with food, gambling, sex, alcohol or drugs in an attempt to self-medicate and escape from their emotional pain.
When a person’s survival or sense of emotional or physical safety is threatened, the fight, flight or freeze response is activated. The primitive brain (subcortical brain regions) takes over and the thinking brain (prefrontal cortex) goes off-line. Therefore, the traumatic memories don’t get fully-processed or metabolized. The images, beliefs, sounds and body sensations remain fragmented, as if frozen in time. These fragments are stored in the primitive brain, in the amygdala – the body’s warning system, which acts like a smoke detector setting off an alarm when something reminds them of the incident, to keep them safe.
Incomplete processing of a traumatic event impairs a person’s ability to integrate these experiences in an adaptive manner and create a cohesive narrative of what happened. This prevents the fragmented traumatic memories from moving from short-term memory into long term storage. While traditional talk therapy can help people acknowledge the reality and impact of the traumatic event, it doesn’t go deep enough into the primitive/survival brain, where the fragmented beliefs, emotions and sensations are stored.
EMDR facilitates the effective reprocessing of traumatic events or adverse life experiences to an adaptive resolution by incorporating alternating bilateral visual, auditory or tactile stimulation which simulates the processing that occurs during Rapid Eye Movement (REM), known as dream sleep. Bilateral Stimulation (BLS) is believed to activate communication between the primitive brain (right hemisphere), where the trauma memories are stuck, with the thinking brain (left hemisphere), where the new adaptive information is accessed. The positive effects of this component of the standardized EMDR protocol have been confirmed by a meta-analysis of 26 randomized controlled studies (Lee & Cuijpers, 2013). EMDR therapy seems to activate the brain’s innate ability to heal emotional wounds, similar to the body’s ability to heal physical wounds.