Do you ever wonder how much of your childhood you would change if you had something akin to a magic wand — at least within the realm of cognitive therapy?
The newest in that field is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Research on EMDR originally centered on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) involving debilitating events such as combat trauma. To condense the complexity of PTSD, a traumatized patient’s brain works too hard and is constantly on overload. Brain scans of people with PTSD illustrate this. Their “emotional” brain centers show up in red as if on fire. EMDR is said to activate these centers, so that traumatic memories, or dysfunctionally stored information, can be moved to a part of the brain that properly processes and stores painful information and thus ending symptoms associated with that information.
However, possibilities for new applications are coming to light, and it’s now being used to treat phobias, performance anxiety, grief, job loss and other “lesser” traumas.
It’s Never too Late for a Happy Childhood
Because many baby boomers grew up in “seen-and-not-heard” environments where physical punishment was common, EMDR is proving to be effective in reprocessing some of those childhood events. And given that methods of discipline employed in most schools in the 1950s and 1960s included paddling and public humiliation (remember the dunce cap?), it’s no surprise that those memories are still so traumatic for some adults that they haunt them still. Consequently, some therapists see EMDR as an effective tool in “reframing” those childhood memories that keep us emotionally stuck.
“What it specifically does that is so helpful is that it takes trauma, whether it be off-the-chart, horrific events, or lesser events — if they are vivid and first-person and emotionally painful, those are unprocessed memories — and EMDR processes them,” says Dr. Janis Christenson, a Nashville-based therapist who uses EMDR along with traditional therapy.
Helping the Brain do its Job
EMDR focuses on a series of bilateral eye movements, such as following a light or a therapist’s finger back and forth. Other forms of bilateral stimulation include listening to a tone in alternating ears and feeling impulse taps on alternating shoulders or knees. Along with this bilateral stimulation, the EMDR practitioner asks questions that pull traumatic memories to the forefront.
All this sensory action stimulates both hemispheres of the brain to communicate, so traumatic information leaves that red hot brain center, gets reprocessed, and eventually re-stored — but properly. Succinctly put by Scott Blech, EMDR International Association Executive Director, “EMDR allows you to recall a traumatic event without the physical and mental reactions that stop you from living your life. Yes, the incident was bad, but now you can move past it.”
Some Say EMDR Works
Rapid eye movements in EMDR appear to allow the brain to reprocess a traumatic experience. This is similar to a theory explaining REM sleep, during which eye movements play an integral role in our brain’s ability to process memories. If this comparison is true, then EMDR is a process that comes naturally to the brain.
EMDR so profoundly helped 50-year old Karen Jeffries that she’s now earning her masters degree in counseling at University of New Orleans so she can then get her EMDR certification. “I’ve worked with talk therapists over the years, to take care of childhood family issues, and they helped … but certain memories were still frozen in my mind. About four years ago, I began working with a counselor here in New Orleans who uses EMDR. It helped me thaw out those frozen memories and work through them.”
Jeffries also saw EMDR in action after Hurricane Katrina struck her home city. She and David Grand, PhD. and author of “Emotional Healing at Warp Speed: The Power of EMDR“, volunteered to help victims. “These people were a mess,” Jeffries says. “One person was stuck on her roof for four days with her 13-year old son. In a matter of hours with David, you could see a positive difference.”
Some Say EMDR Does Not Work
EMDR does have its critics, and several studies conclude that eye movements make very little or no difference when the procedure is compared to traditional psychotherapies. Blech quickly adds, “There are skeptics, and I’m the first to admit that we need more research. But, it’s easy to tear down a therapy when you take apart the elements — as opposed to looking at the complete process and how it changes someone for the better.”
Perhaps because of the eye movements, people sometimes confuse EMDR with hypnosis. It’s not in the same realm. Nor is it a miracle. An accredited EMDR practitioner must have an advanced degree in the mental health field, must be licensed to practice, and must pass a standardized, 50-hour training program.
Rapid eye movements in EMDR appear to allow the brain to reprocess a traumatic experience. This is similar to a theory explaining REM sleep, during which eye movements play an integral role in our brain’s ability to process memories. If this comparison is true, then EMDR is a process that comes naturally to the brain. To find a certified EMDR therapist in your area, click the EMDR International Association website or phone toll free, 512-451-5200.