It was a beautiful autumn day. She had just seen her doctor. The news was bad. So she wandered into a nearby park. Upset. Scared.
Then she noticed them. Flocks of red-breasted robins flying in V-formation, left to right, across the azure sky. She watched intently as they passed. She became lost in their flight.
Then, suddenly, realization.
“I feel…better!” she mumbled incredulously to herself.
All the way home she pondered what had just happened. Was it the birds themselves? Maybe it was their path of flight. The psychologist in her couldn’t ignore the neurological possibilities.
When she got home she invited some friends over, and sat each one down, one a time, asking them to think of something troubling to them.
You want me to do what?
The subject sat, skeptical at first, his eyes following the good doctor’s fingers as she rapidly moved them back and forth in front of his face. It went on for several moments. Then came The Question:
“How do you feel now about the thing that’s troubling you?”
For each of her friends the outcome was the same. The repetitive, left-to-right eye movement seemed to reduce—if not eliminate—their annoyed or distressed feelings.
From these unusual beginnings some decadess ago, Dr. Francine Shapiro developed the landmark psychotherapy technique known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing—EMDR for short.
Hope for victims of trauma
Today, EMDR has become a leading-edge treatment for a variety of issues, including:
- Combat-related PTSD;
- Rape and childhood sexual abuse;
- Serious illness or injury;
- Workplace harassment; and
- Experiencing natural and man-made disasters.
The beauty of EMDR is that it’s not long-term therapy. Most patients see significant results in just 12 sessions or less.
Here’s how it works…
There’s a little Microsoft in all of us (and Apples, too)
Think of your brain as a computer. (Actually, computers were modeled after the human brain). We all have a kind of RAM memory that’s supposed to hold information temporarily until we can figure out where to store it in a more permanent part of our memory (think hard drive).
We process every experience we have in this way, moving it from RAM to hard drive. Except for experiences so overwhelming we don’t quite know how to process them. These get stuck in RAM.
I’m talking nasty stuff like:
- Being raped and beaten by an adult family member when you’re just five.
- Watching your Army buddy get blown to bits by an IED in Iraq.
- Coming down with a life-threatening illness.
- Surviving a terrible disaster like an earthquake or a terror attack.
Unprocessed—or stuck—experiences can worm their way back into our consciousness days, weeks, even years after they happened. They come as flashbacks…nightmares…intrusive and unpleasant thoughts.
Here’s the good news…EMDR can help you get unstuck.
It’s All About the Wiring
To continue with the computer analogy (I just figure that if a non-techie like me can understand this stuff, then so can the rest of the world!), computers contain tens of thousands of circuits and microcircuits that convey information back and forth between the keyboard, mouse, monitor and other peripherals to different areas of the core processor (aka, the “brains” of the computer).
The human counterparts of computer circuitry are called neurons, and they are legion. The human body contains billions of these specialized cells, all interconnected by special electrical and chemical bodies called synapses. Synaptic connections create movement of sensory data from all parts of the body to the brain, where the data is then analyzed, interpreted, and stored for future reference.
Say, for example, I’m in my back yard one afternoon and notice a small black creature with a white line running down its back and its tail sticking up in the air. This visual sensory information is conveyed from my eyes to my brain, with the following end result:
Analysis: I’m looking at a skunk.
Course of action: RUN LIKE HELL.
No Frame of Reference
For most of us, a simple event such as seeing a skunk (hopefully before he sees you!) is…pardon the pun…a no-brainer for your brain to handle.
Unfortunately, everything in life isn’t always that straightforward.
Surviving childhood sexual physical abuse is a good example. Young children have an innate sense that their adult caregivers are supposed to give them exactly what that name implies: caring, love, and protection.
So when an adult family member grievously hurts instead of protects you, as a five or six year old your brain can’t make sense of that horrendous experience. It has simply no frame of reference from which to process it. And if the hurt is grievous enough, it may get stuck–in a sense–in your brain, and re-emerge years later in the form of flashbacks, distressing dreams, feeling unsafe even in safe surroundings, and so forth.
It’s like when you leave information in your computer’s “RAM” memory because you can’t figure out where to save it on the hard drive. You don’t see it, but it’s there. Lurking behind the screen. And with an accidental click of the wrong keys, it can suddenly re-appear on your screen.
Blazing New Trails
What the left-to-right brain stimulation appears to do is create new neural pathways in the brain for the stuck material to move from the RAM-like memory to that part of your memory where past experiences are normally archived.
By the way, unlike its name suggests, EMDR doesn’t just involve eye movement. It also works with audio tones and hand-held pulsing devices. Or, if you prefer, your therapist gently taps your palms with a pencil (eraser-side, so you don’t end up looking like you were stoking coal with your bare hands).
What also helps you move the information along the new pathway, is your talking about the unpleasant memory to your therapist and noting any associated thoughts, images, other memories, or sensations that may arise during the stimulation.
Sound far-fetched? I thought so when I first heard of EMDR. But since learning more about this procedure and getting trained in it, I’ve successfully employed it with many clients suffering PTSD, and I’m still inspired when I see true healing take place in them as a result.
Want to know more? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Genovese, LPC, LCADC, is the founding director of Milestone Group, LLC, a full-service counseling and psychotherapy practice located in Atlantic Highlands, NJ. He specializes in treating depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other behavioral health issues. He is also a fully trained EMDR provider.
© James Genovese, LPC, LCADC / Milestone Group LLC (2012)