EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is the most thoroughly researched therapy method used to treat trauma. There are more controlled studies on EMDR than on any other method. A recent study of individuals who experienced rape, military combat, loss of loved ones, disasters and serious accidents, found that 84-90% had relief of their emotional distress after only three EMDR sessions. It uses a structured 8-phase approach to address past, present, and future aspects of disturbing memories and life events.
Although the original technique, developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, involved the use of eye movements, later developments utilize other forms of bilateral stimulation, for example sounds heard in one ear then the other or alternating hand tapping. Different clients may respond better to different sensory modes.
How EMDR works to resolve traumatic stress is unclear, in part because we still know so little about how the brain and how it processes traumatic memories and intense emotions. Dr. Shapiro’s theory is that traumatic experiences are stored in the brain in such a way that they are stuck and not fully processed or integrated. This explains the common PTSD symptoms such as intrusion of the traumatic material via nightmares and flashbacks. Focusing on traumatic material while simultaneously focusing on the bilateral stimulation is believed to allow for a kind of jump starting of processing that leads to integration with more adaptive information. This can lead to reduced cognitive distortions, elimination of emotional distress, and relief of related physical symptoms.
“We believe that EMDR induces a fundamental change in brain circuitry similar to what happens in REM sleep — that allows the person undergoing treatment to more effectively process and incorporate traumatic memories into general association networks in the brain. This helps the individual integrate and understand the memories within the larger context of his or her life experience.” –Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., Harvard Medical School
Others question the mechanism for change associated with EMDR. Some see it as simply another type of exposure therapy. although the theory is debated, the results are conclusive. Anecdotally, I have seen remarkable and fast resolution of trauma symptoms after EMDR. Some clients report working through cognitive distortions, such as blaming themselves for the abuse. Some report achieving a sense of peace about the traumatic material and/or the ability to know it without feeling emotionally overwhelmed by it.
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