Eye-catching therapy: EMDR goes mainstream

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), incorporates eye movement with a variety of other techniques.

by Kayla Gayle, Ph.D. — 

It had been almost six months since the accident, and Elizabeth found herself getting worse. She had been unable to stop the obsessive thoughts since that fateful day the truck slammed into her car. She was still hearing the sound of screeching tires and shattering glass from the accident.

As time passed, Elizabeth’s flashbacks and insomnia increased. She had difficulty driving and even remembering where she was going. Elizabeth finally sought help from a therapist who specialized in a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which incorporates eye movement with a variety of other techniques.

After taking her history, the therapist had Elizabeth put on a pair of headphones, which delivered audio tones to alternating ears, and had her hold two small disks that pulsated in her palms. Elizabeth was then asked to recall images from the accident, along with any negative beliefs she might have about herself when she thought about it. She was also asked to rate each belief on a scale from 0 to 10, and express how she hoped to transform it. After three sessions, Elizabeth said her panic had subsided.

Developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro, EMDR has recently gained mainstream approval. Shapiro posits that EMDR’s effects are similar to those of REM, or rapid eye movement, which occurs during the dream state. Researchers say that during REM sleep, the brain consolidates learning and memories. This is the beauty of EMDR — where traditional therapies may take months, EMDR takes only a few sessions.

Scott Blech, executive director of the EMDR International Association in Austin, Texas, reports that more than 25 articles on EMDR have been published in scientific journals. In 2004, the American Psychiatric Association and the U.S. departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense recommended EMDR as a method for treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

EMDR has been endorsed by government mental health agencies in the United Kingdom and Israel, and is widely used throughout the United States and Europe. It is spreading elsewhere, too. A group called EMDR HAP, a nonprofit based in Connecticut, sends members to war or disaster zones to train local therapists. Their work has included sessions in New York after 9/11, in the Gulf States following Hurricane Katrina and in south Asia after the 2004 tsunami.

EMDR sessions look something like this: The client identifies a problem and describes how having experienced the event creates a belief about the event. The client also states what they hope to believe about themselves in the future. In 15- to 20-second “sets,” the therapist has the client listen to tones and feel tactile pulses. The client recalls the event, as well as its sights, sounds and smells. Meanwhile, the therapist continues the sets.

Clients remain awake and aware. After each set, the therapist asks the client how their perceptions of themselves may have changed. The client guides the therapist. As long as the process is progressing, the session will continue.

Some clients may require only one session of EMDR before finding the memory less disturbing, while others may need more. Three sessions seems to be the average, as in Elizabeth’s case. After one session, most people experience a reduction in negative emotions around the event. Many therapists think EMDR helps the rational left side of the brain to “knit” a disturbing memory from the emotional right side. Therapists often describe this processing as a useful tool. Millions of people have been treated, and research supports the remarkable claims made for EMDR therapy.


Dr. Kayla Gayle offers individual healing sessions. 888-443-6443 or Kayla@Dr.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 26, Number 5, October/November 2007.

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