It sounds too easy. Could it be possible that you could alleviate some of your mental burden by focusing on what troubles you, while at the same time you allow your eyes to follow the oscillating finger of a therapist?
Hundreds of studies and three million clients have proven that such techniques work.
It’s not that simple though. The process is known as EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.
It’s a fancy term for something that happens inside the brain to restore healthy functioning that has been impaired by emotional trauma.
Rick Newberry is clinical social worker in Atlin, BC. He has been using EMDR as a counseling technique since he received his master’s degree in social work from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, 12 years ago.
“It has nothing to do with eye movements per se,” says Newberry, “It’s the stimulation of right and left hemispheres of the brain. Eye movement is (just) one way to do that.”
Other techniques include using headphones emitting sounds that alternate from one ear to the other, or electronic gadgets that give small vibrations alternately to the right and left side of the body.
These external stimulations result in corresponding internal stimulations to the left and right side of the brain.
We do not know how any form of psychotherapy really works inside the brain.
However, we do know that when a person goes through emotional trauma, their brain stores information and memories differently.
As a result these memories can’t make connections with other memories and information held in different parts of the memory. Without connection there is no context, and trauma victims appear to have no awareness of their strengths and abilities.
Newberry says that by focusing on the feelings and the experience of past trauma, and by going through stimulations to the right and left hemispheres of the brain, old memories are balanced and reprocessed.
Normal information processing is resumed. You still remember what happened, but it is less upsetting.
He says that this process helps bring up our logic, wisdom, abilities, skills, and knowledge. These are tools that we typically can’t reach when we are intensely focused on emotion.
“When these (skills) are present at the same time that we are thinking about threatening and traumatic experiences, then we don’t feel quite so intimidated by it, and the feelings diminish,” says Newberry.
The more we feel fear, the less we are able to access and recall other ways to get through a situation, he says.
“If I’m in sheer panic, I may just forget all that. I may have no access to realizing that I’m not totally helpless. I am not in a hopeless situation. But those ideas don’t come up until hours or days or weeks later when I’m calm and I look back on it,” he says.
When people are in a moment of intense emotion it is hard to consciously pull oneself to a thoughtful place and realize that one has other abilities and skills that could be used.
“Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage is: ‘I have fear and I am able to decide with the fear to do (what) is to my benefit or the benefit of others.’ So I can have the emotion and the thoughtfulness at the same time,” says Newberry.
Newberry finds that the technique works best with clients who have had one single trauma or threatening experience. These people can often get out of a stuck place within five to 20 minutes.
He is quick to point out that EMDR is not so quick or appropriate for everybody.
If a client did not have a positive experience growing up or does not currently have a lot of resources or skills, then these resources need to be built up and more time will have to be devoted to EMDR to complete the treatment.
EMDR is just one of many approaches Newberry might take with a client. Traditional clinical social work is still necessary to help clients build positive resources and strengths necessary for the EMDR to be effective.
“There’s no way to do this process right or wrong,” says Newberry, “It’s like you’re riding in the passenger seat of a car and you’re just noticing whatever scenery goes by.
“You don’t have to do anything other than just notice what are the feelings, thoughts, and images that are attached to the old, unwanted, memory.
“You don’t have to get anything – just notice whatever comes to mind and just go with it. Your brain is just doing the processing from there on.”
Newberry says he likes the process for getting the therapist out of the way.
“This is a very un-intrusive, respectful process. It’s not suggestion or anything else, its just processing what the client already knows,” he says.
Conveniently, EMDR can also be used to ‘install’ positive abilities or skills. A client imagining a certain ability or skill while installing it with an EMDR process will find it helps build their trust and belief in that skill.
“It kind of helps cement it in place so they are then able to go out and more effectively do it and repeat it,” says Newberry.
Take, for example, someone who is afraid to speak up because they have learned by experience that it is best to shut up.
Simply by imagining daring to say just a little bit more than they typically would, the client, through EMDR, puts that vision or idea in place with a good feeling attached to it.
Then when they go out in the real world, they have the strength to speak more and they have a better chance to engage in conversation.
“They repeat the process,” says Newberry, “And lo and behold, they didn’t think they could do this but now they find out, ‘This is going better than I thought, I think I can do this!’ Now they’ve got a resource.”
This positive reinforcement technique has been documented to work as well for people wishing to enhance performance in sports, arts and business.
Since the inception of EMDR in 1989 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, hundreds of case studies and peer reviews have been published demonstrating its effectiveness.
“There is as much research on EMDR as there is on any other kind of treatment for trauma that exists,” says Newberry.
According to the EMDR Institute website, www.emdr.com, four studies have indicated an elimination of diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder in 77 to 90 per cent of civilian participants after three to seven sessions.
Other studies have found significant decreases in a wide range of PTSD symptoms after just two or three sessions.
“You are working with data and evidence that is repeatable, reliable, and verifiable,” says Newberry.
Six studies have shown how survivors of sexual assault are now able to maintain healthy relationships.
Numerous studies have also had success in working with children who have experienced disaster-related trauma.
EMDR has been used on Vietnam War vets with a 77 per cent success rate. The US department of Defence has declared it to be a first-line treatment and is using it today on Iraq War Vets.
There are more than 4,000 practitioners in the EMDR International Association.
There is one member of the EMDR Canada Association working in Whitehorse. Alberta Rooney is a psychologist and a certified therapist with an office on 5th Ave.
Stephen Badhwar is a writer who lives in Atlin, BC.