I have been interested in trauma since the earliest days of my education. In my early clinical work, I found that no matter what issues brought people into treatment, nine times out of 10 there was some kind of trauma story behind it. Since then my teaching, research, writing, and day-to-day clinical work have all focused on helping people who have endured painful trauma in their lives, typically starting at an early age.
I began to see patterns—both in the ways that our brains deal with trauma and in the ways that people attempt to cope with the aftereffects of devastating life experiences. I began to see what helped people heal—and what didn’t. Enter: EMDR therapy.
In 1987, psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., made a discovery during a walk in the park. While walking, she was thinking about some recent disturbing events in her life. As she considered these events, she became aware that her eyes were moving back and forth. As her eyes moved, she noticed that the negative emotional charge of the painful memories that had driven her to the park that day subsided dramatically. She began exploring the connection between “bilateral” (back-and-forth) eye movements and the diminishing or “desensitization” of anxiety. She eventually developed a full treatment around this feature and conducted controlled research and case studies to evaluate its effects. She named the approach Eye Movement Desensitization (EMD), and later changed the name to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR).
That’s exactly what it is: a psychotherapy for desensitizing anxiety (taking away or lowering distress) and reprocessing traumatic memories. And yes, it’s also a mouthful and an earful. We know.
What Shapiro came to prove was that trauma victims are actually able to experience a reduction in symptoms and start experiencing a level of peace and healing within a few sessions. Previously, this kind of change had been possible only after years of talk therapy—if ever. Subsequently, EMDR has been intensively studied and proven effective—and efficient—in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD develops in response to a traumatic experience that causes intense fear, helplessness, or horror. EMDR therapy is recognized as an effective form of treatment for PTSD by the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, and the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense. More than 100,000 clinicians throughout the world use the therapy, and millions of people have been treated successfully over the past 30 years.
Once traumatic experiences and their related triggers have been processed, we expect to see a reduction or even a complete remission in a wide range of problems and symptoms.
Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?
In addition to applications with obvious trauma-related problems and diagnoses, EMDR is being used to treat people of all ages—who may or may not have PTSD—suffering from depression, anxiety, phobias, pain, eating disorders, addictions, psychotic disorders, and medically unexplained physical symptoms.
It’s being used with combat veterans and first responders (police, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, and nurses) as well as with groups of people in the immediate aftermath of “critical incidents” or disasters, such as mass shootings, hurricanes and floods, and terrorist attacks. With EMDR therapy at my disposal during the coronavirus pandemic, I was able to effectively and efficiently treat front-line workers (employed in grocery stores, hospitals, and homeless shelters), those who had been on ventilators in the ICU, and those who had suffered devastating losses of loved ones.
EMDR therapy is based on the idea that psychological difficulties are related to the brain’s failure to adequately process traumatic memories. Of course, most mental health experts support the notion that past experiences have at least something to do with our current personalities, coping styles, relationship difficulties, and psychological struggles. This idea is certainly not new. However, EMDR therapy specifically searches for and addresses memories related to current dysfunction.
How EMDR leads to healing.
As memories are adequately processed with EMDR, symptoms recede and memories get more effectively connected to other related memories and information, allowing shifts in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical sensations. Healing involves spontaneous movement toward positive thinking and more manageable feelings and a significant reduction in distress and anxiety experienced in one’s body.
The theory behind EMDR argues that the mind can heal from psychological trauma in the same way the body heals from physical trauma; we are all physiologically geared toward the achievement of optimal health. If you have been physically injured and left with a wound, the body will naturally and spontaneously mobilize to heal that wound. The body may need a little help removing barriers (i.e., infection) to healing, but it clearly knows what to do.
When people come into treatment, typically their world is quite small. They have pulled back because so many things in their day-to-day experience and relationships with other people have become “triggers” for them, activating overwhelming emotions and distress. They are feeling isolated, or hopeless, or defective. But what I have always loved about this work is that people get better. With all that we know today about effective treatment, I can confidently say to a client in the first session, “You were injured perhaps in many different ways, emotionally, physically, sexually—but you can recover. This is not something you were born with or need to keep living with.”
Excerpted from Every Memory Deserves Respect: EMDR, the Proven Trauma Therapy With the Power To Heal (Workman Publishing) by Michael Baldwin and Deborah Korn, PsyD. Copyright © 2021.