EMDR, the swift and easy way out of painful events and memories
A POWERFUL EFFORTLESS THERAPY
Eye Mouvement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Last Thursday, just starting the Memorial Day long weekend, my computer decided to take a vacation. Actually, until today it does not start when I turn it on, it only prompts a rather crazy sounding fan. I really couldn’t believe it. There I was, my screen dead, black, ominous, my work of the last couple of days, of course, I had forgotten to save to my flashdrive, and my plans for finishing something that I was doing ... gone, ruined. It really felt awful. I went on with my life, though, but that night, when I sat for my usual prayer/meditation session, I discovered that I was anguished, barely able to concentrate on anything except my computer and the work that I had probably lost and what not.
Then and there I decided to try on myself EMDR, a very successful technique created to treat the traumas of war, rape and other terrible instances. It didn’t occur to me that it was ridiculous to use such tool on something so minuscule as my minuscule mishappen with the computer. I only knew that I was anguished and I decided to give myself a little help.
So, just feeling what I was feeling, I placed my hand, index deployed, some inches from my face, and started moving it from right to left and left to right, following the tip of my finger with my eyes while keeping my head immobile. Thirty seconds or so. Then I stopped, I waited a little bit and started the movement again, still focusing on my anguish and my computer. At the end of the third time of doing this I was smiling out of surprise and delight. Some things had happened: I was not any more anguished, my heart was beating normally, and I had a new plan for the long weekend –instead of finishing what I had planned to finish, I decided to wait until Tuesday to find a computer doctor and in the meantime, to take care of other things and to write this hub, which is what I’m doing right now.
If you peruse the websites about EMDR you are going to find strong advice against doing it on yourself. They claim that doing it alone might trigger memories and/or feelings that you cannot deal with and put yourself in danger … at least in danger of having a real bad time unnecessarily. Because of this warning I have to say that I have been through 5 years of psychoanalitic therapy and 5 years of full psychoanalysis, that I use and give to others Dr. Edward Bach floral remedies since 1978, that I am quite good at the use of EFT –Emotional Freedom Technique– and that due to specific circomstances in my family I’ve been researching the field of mental and physical well-being quite extensively for several decades. So in no way I put myself in any danger by using EMDR but I entirely and strongly agree that an inexperienced person should abstain from doing it.
I only related this small incident in order to introduce my subject from the most immediate and close witness to it: myself.
What is EMDR?
If you want to know what EMDR is from the speech of the inventor, then you should look for the books of Francine Shapiro and her colleagues at the EMDR institute. If you would like a small, simple explanation without technical terms, then go on reading this article.
EMDR is a treatment, a therapy, that brings desired results in just a few sessions –with very little talking, without the use of drugs, without the use of “homework” between sessions– a treatment that is mainly used to cure PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder –that array of negative feelings of body and mind that plagues and ruins the lives of many soldiers, rape victims, molested children, catastrophe’s survivors and other people who’ve suffered an important shock or trauma in their lives. This PSTD (post traumatic stress disorder) is somehow well known nowadays but for the longest time it was overlooked and for the longest time it was treated without much success or not success at all. And still today many people don’t know of its existence or fail to recognize it in themselves or in their loved ones and are thus unable to seek help for it, let alone take advantage of a cure so incredibly simple and effective as EMDR.
Francine Shapiro happened to notice that when she was disturbed by something she would start feeling better if she moved her eyes. That’s how it all started. She created since then a whole, complex technique that has been adopted by many responsive therapists that, understanding the importance of her discovery and having in mind only the well-being of their patients, have added it to their practice even though by doing it they were acting against the orthodoxy of their own discipline.
I first learned about EMDR through one of these courageous individuals, Dr. David Servan-Schreiber and his book GUÉRIR le stress, l’anxiété et la dépression sans médicaments ni psychanalyse. I read it in his original French, but you can find it in English too: The instinct to heal: Curing depression, anxiety and stress without drugs and without talk therapy. This is a book that I recommend with all my heart.
Dr. David Servan-Schreiber, a psychiatrist, a specialist of cognitive neuroscience and the neurobiologie of emotions, knew quite well about the tenacious, sometimes impossible to heal psychological scars left by extreme fear or other similar emotions experienced during a traumatic event. He knew that a measure of understanding and relief was possible with talk therapy and other therapies, but he knew too that as soon as any trigger would reconnect the person with the old fear –a smell, a slight resemblance, a sound, a moment of day, a gesture, some words– then this old tyrant, fear, with its companions: anxiety, anguish, guilt and many debilitating physical symptoms would take hold of its victim. Yes, he knew that many times all his efforts as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist would at best produce just a partial and temporary relief to something impossible to heal … until, that is, he attended a medical congress where a psychologist from California, named Francine Shapiro, showed a video about his hotly discussed about, at that time, EMDR, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
This is the case presented by Francine Shapiro that seems to have been a turning point in Dr. Servan-Schreiber’s life as a doctor. Maggie, a sixty something year old woman, was diagnosed with incurable cancer and learned that she only had six months to live. Her husband, three decades before, had lost his first wife to cancer. When he learned about Maggie’s unhappy news he was so shocked and terrified that he decided that he was unable to cope with such difficult matter a second time and abandoned his wife and home. Maggie was so unbearably unhappy that she decided to commit suicide but friends of the couple that learned about it convinced the husband, Henri, to return home. After this episode, Maggie was in constant fear of being abandoned by Henri, was unable to be separated from him even for brief periods of time, was mostly unable to sleep and when she did sleep she would have the recurrent nightmare of seeing Henri running away from her. Aware that she was ruining the short time that she had left to live, she joined an experimental treatment of traumas that she found reading a newspaper, and entered thus one of the first scientific studies of EMDR. At the medical congress, the inventor of the treatment showed a video of the main session with Maggie.
An EMDR session
At the beginning Maggie was totally unable to follow the therapist instructions, prompting her to remember what had happened with Henri. She was so terrified that she could not even start thinking about it without feeling terrible, practically choking with panic. She also kept saying that she felt pains everywhere in her body. After much persuasion from the therapist she finally accepted to remember and thus, the therapist started the movements of her hand in front of Maggie’s face, left to right, right to left, while the patient, without moving her own head, followed the movement only with the movement of her eyes. After a couple of rounds all of a sudden Maggie said something like: “Oh, it’s gone, it’s not there any more! I can’t believe this! It’s like when you are travelling by train, something is in front of you and suddenly it’s not there, it’s gone. Oh my God, how could I have given so much importance to such a small matter?” Her body visibly changed its demeanor, now she was sitting straight without signs of experiencing any pain. Another round of eye movements and all of a sudden she started smiling. When the therapist asked about it, she answered: “You won’t believe this. I was seeing Henri go away and thinking ‘if he’s not able to cope with this, then, goodbye’, and I was actually waving at him and saying, ‘good bye Henri’ ...” Another round and she imagines her coming death, friends surrounding her, comforting her. And in the end, she slaps her thigh and states: “And you know what? I’m going to die with dignity, I’m going to be fine!”
Servan-Schreiber was astounded but refused to believe that something so simple that lasted such a short time … like fifteen minutes … could produce any true valuable results. He thought that the patient was probably very sensitive and easily influenced and in any case he didn’t imagine that the apparently good results could last for any significant period of time. The scientist in him was telling him these things. The psychoanalist in him was reluctant to even think that something could work without the use of language, without the analysis of the transference, without an extended period of effort, without the patience to sustain such long and costly exertion. But the doctor in him was thinking of his patients and that he could not deprive them from the relief this curious method was showing in that woman. In the end, he thought that to refuse to study and use EMDR would be as unethical as to have refused penicilline when it was created just because the older and less useful sulfamides were somehow, sometimes, already working.
He needed more, though, than Maggie’s case to be convinced. And more he got. One of the most fastidious and demanding medical magazines published a study about the use of EMDR with a group of eighty patients suffering from very serious trauma. Among them, 80% was practically symptoms-free after only three sessions. Dr. Servan-Schreiber had never heard of any therapy of any type having reached results in three weeks in the field of psychiatry, not even with powerful drugs. He was impressed, no doubt, but he was still thinking that such results could not be long lasting. To his amazement, fifteen months after those three sessions, the patients were doing even better than at the time of the EMDR treatment. Dr. David Servan-Schreiber ended up including EMDR among the few techniques in his book GUÉRIR, that he chose to offer as tools to take our own lifes in our hands without depending on drugs nor long, costly therapies.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Again, this is just a very simplified explanation. We have in our brains two sectors equally important for our balance, for our mental well-being: an inner core related to our ancestors in the chain of evolution, where our emotions are stored, and a frontal sector whose activity is an objective and rational evaluation of reality. When these two are in communication, life is balanced. When they don’t talk to each other, life is disrupted by negative feelings, physical symptoms like palpitations, unexplained immature behavior and general unhappiness. Such divorce among our “two brains” takes place because of a trauma.
Traumatic occurrences are the ones we named before, the experience of war, the loss of a loved one, an accident, suffering the wrath of nature with earthquakes or wind storms and other such terrifying events, torture, rape, molestation, abuse … but also less noticeable occurrences such as being neglected by parents, despised by schoolmates, and a thousand experiences that anybody can suffer in life. Any such event or series of events has the potential to become an encapsulated memory inside that inner core of our brain. If this happens, our most anguishing perceptions belonging to the actual shocking event are stored as if they were stone statues, unmovable, and anything that even remotely evoques the traumatic memory triggers the same repetitive fear, anguish, feelings of helplessness and impotence and the difficult to bear physical symptoms. The individual might have grown up in good shape in other areas and have an adult life … it does not matter, once the trigger touches that encapsulated part of his past the person becomes again the terrified victim of that past. In many cases, even years of psychoanalysis and the conscious understanding and coming to terms with the traumatic event through activities both intellectual and affective only seem to give a superficial varnish of balance to the individual.
Now, the brief dual or triple activities that take place simultaneously during an EMDR session –the feeling of body sensations, the mental image of the traumatic episode and the movement of the eyes– for some reason reestablish the communication between those two areas of the brain –and this is something that the modern methods of scanning are able to show. This communication makes emotions and rational thinking work together again and triggers the quickest imaginable reevaluation of reality by the individual, where the feelings of anguish, fear and helplessness are shed and the thousand possibilities of freedom, resilience and wisdom that he possesses are all of a sudden in his hands for him to use. And he instantly uses them, to his own delight and amazement. It’s very simple. Just before the session, he might’ve known rationally that he had such thousand potentialities, but he didn’t “feel” he had them truly. During the session, such good potentialities become true in actuality, as if the marriage of rational thought and emotions allowed the individual to be powerful and self reliant… at least regarding that specific matter.
Before her first EMDR session, a woman raped in the distant past by her father would recurrently become a terrified little girl as soon as the faintest trigger of the painful memory appeared. During the EMDR session, the helpless, fearful little girl became an adult, able woman, capable of judging her tormentor as such, capable of not feeling guilty any more, capable at last to feel anger against the one who victimized her and in the end, even capable of understanding her tormentor’s problems and developing a measure of compassion for him.
A ray of hope
EMDR can be used for many troubles, both for adults and children. It does not cure everything, but it can help in some cases even patients whose main illness it cannot heal. If you or one of your loved ones feel unable to cope with certain circumstances of life, such as a loss, a sudden illness, an accident, a difficult job situation, etc., chances are that you all might benefit from such a swift, simple treatment as EMDR. You can find a host of therapists in the internet, probably even from the official website of Francine Shapiro.
One should not forget that many events, supposedly minor, have the potential to become an encapsulated traumatic memory, probably because they might relate to older memories buried in our emotional brain. It wouldn't be surprising that we all have a hidden collection of such negative chains of interrelated bad memories. They are there, unable to evolve, always waiting for the slightest trigger to react and transform us again and again in a victim of the past. But now we have this tool, EMDR, to gain back the power to be the true captains of our life's ship.
What enormous gift these people –Francine Shapiro and her colleagues that had the courage to acknowledge the value of her work– have given us with EMDR. I hope this article has given a ray of hope to some of my fellow human beings.
This is a link to a video with a couple of actual cases. I was not able to embed it, but if you copy it and paste it with your browser you'll get there immediately. Sorry it's in French, but what's going on is quite obvious, I hope you enjoy it.
In this video you will see two women, both being treated with EMDR. The American lady saw her father after an accident, bleeding, terribly wounded; she cannot overcome the shock. The Lebanese lady was the witness of a terrifying bombing in her hometown back in 2006, where she saw people holding dismembered relatives, while she was there with her own children who shouted in terror telling her that they didn't want to die. At the time of the video, she is living in France with a sister, everybody is in good shape except her, she cannot stand the slightest noise, she cannot stand her children, she has stopped living, always replaying the bombing. Then comes the EMDR session ... her face will show her almost instant healing, when her inner emotional brain connects with her frontal part of the brain and she finally is able to leave the past where it belongs ... in the past.
Here's the url for the video, just copy and paste it up there and you will be able to see it right away.