EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a technique for processing trauma discovered by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. The past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a training weekend on EMDR and still am trying to absorb and make sense of what I learned and experienced. In some ways, what I was taught this weekend was not new, namely that traumatic experiences due to their overwhelming affect storm, get stored in the body and segregated from the thinking and processing left hemisphere of the brain. As a psychoanalyst, I understood that talk therapy over years would eventually create new links between the location of the stored trauma (i.e. body and limbic brain) and the processing mind, thereby rendering the memory of the trauma more manageable, less affectively charged and ultimately held with a different meaning (e.g. rather than “I am a victim”, the meaning becomes, “I am a strong survivor who can trust her judgment”).
I was not wrong in my understanding and in fact, trauma does work through as a result of talk therapy…it just takes a very long time. But this past weekend changed my mind about that. Dr. Shapiro knew that her discovery would be received with much skepticism and consequently began her research on EMDR immediately, while still a graduate student. The research is plentiful and compelling. (see www.emdria.org) Veterans of war, for example, who have suffered with PTSD for 20+ years, find lasting relief with 3-5 sessions. What EMDR does is utilize something talk therapy does not – bilateral stimulation. The guided movement of one’s eyes back and forth while focusing on the trauma allows the person to access both sides of the brain and lay down fresh neural pathways in the corpus callosum previously blocked by the original trauma. These fresh neural pathways are like new onramps to the brain’s already existing elaborate freeway system of connections. The trauma can finally be processed by the adult mind of the individual. The EMDR process is not completed until a more reality based thought and feeling about the personal meaning of the traumatic event is securely located and connected with in the brain.
Too good to be true? That certainly was my original take on EMDR. Yet clients who have used EMDR say it has changed their lives, transforming their anxiety into competence and their insecurity into feelings of lovability. As a student in the training, I did experience some shifting in my thought process when I was the guinea pig during our practicum sessions. I am left feeling cautiously optimistic and hopeful for the the many people who carry the burden of unresolved trauma.