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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a powerful tool that helps individuals overcome emotional trauma and reprogram negative associations in their minds.

A Surprisingly Powerful Tool: Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing

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Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR)

What skeletons are in your closet? As life goes on, most of accumulate bad experiences as well as good ones, to a greater or lesser degree. From clear cases of classic PTSD, to the widely underexamined many-headed beast that is C-PTSD*, our past does affect our present. Is there, then, any chance for our future being different?

*PTSD is typically associated with military veterans, for example, or sexual assault survivors. There was a clear, indisputable, Bad Thing™ that was experienced, and it left a psychological scar. When something happens to remind us of that—say, there are fireworks, or somebody touches us a certain way—it’ll trigger an immediate strong response of some kind.

These days the word “triggered” has been popularly misappropriated to mean any adverse emotional reaction, often to something trivial.

But, not all trauma is so clear. If PTSD refers to the result of that one time you were smashed with a sledgehammer, C-PTSD (Complex PTSD) refers to the result of having been hit with a rolled-up newspaper every few days for fifteen years, say.

This might have been…

  • childhood emotional neglect
  • a parent with a hair-trigger temper
  • bullying at school
  • extended financial hardship as a young adult
  • “just” being told or shown all too often that your best was never good enough
  • the persistent threat (real or imagined) of doom of some kind
  • the often-reinforced idea that you might lose everything at any moment

If you’re reading this list and thinking “that’s just life though”, you might be in the estimated 1 in 5 people with (often undiagnosed) C-PTSD.

For more on C-PTSD, see our previous main feature:

PTSD, But, Well…. Complex

So, what does eye movement have to do with this?

Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique whereby a traumatic experience (however small or large; it could be the memory of that one time you said something very regrettable, or it could be some horror we couldn’t describe here) is recalled, and then “detoothed” by doing a bit of neurological jiggery-pokery.

How the neurological jiggery-pokery works:

By engaging the brain in what’s called bilateral stimulation (which can be achieved in various ways, but a common one is moving the eyes rapidly from side to side, hence the name), the event can be re-processed, in much the same way that we do when dreaming, and relegated safely to the past.

This doesn’t mean you’ll forget the event; you’d need to do different exercises for that.

See also our previous main feature:

The Dark Side Of Memory (And How To Make Your Life Better)

That’s not the only aspect of EMDR, though…

EMDR is not just about recalling traumatic events while moving your eyes from side-to-side. What an easy fix that would be! There’s a little more to it.

The process also involves (ideally with the help of a trained professional) examining what other memories, thoughts, feelings, come to mind while doing that. Sometimes, a response we have today associated with, for example, a feeling of helplessness, or rage in conflict, or shame, or anything really, can be connected to previous instances of feeling the same thing. And, each of those events will reinforce—and be reinforced by—the others.

An example of this could be an adult who struggles with substance abuse (perhaps alcohol, say), using it as a crutch to avoid feelings of [insert static here; we don’t know what the feelings are because they’re being avoided], that were first created by, and gradually snowballed from, some adverse reaction to something they did long ago as a child, then reinforced at various times later in life, until finally this adult doesn’t know what to do, but they do know they must hide it at all costs, or suffer the adverse reaction again. Which obviously isn’t a way to actually overcome anything.

EMDR, therefore, seeks to not just “detooth” a singular traumatic memory, but rather, render harmless the whole thread of memories.

Needless to say, this kind of therapy can be quite an emotionally taxing experience, so again, we recommend trying it only under the guidance of a professional.

Is this an evidence-based approach?

Yes! It’s not without its controversy, but that’s how it is in the dog-eat-dog world of academia in general and perhaps psychotherapy in particular. To give a note to some of why it has some controversy, here’s a great freely-available paper that presents “both sides” (it’s more than two sides, really); the premises and claims, the criticisms, and explanations for why the criticisms aren’t necessarily actually problems—all by a wide variety of independent research teams:

Research on Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing (EMDR) as a Treatment for PTSD

To give an idea of the breadth of applications for EMDR, and the evidence of the effectiveness of same, here are a few additional studies/reviews (there are many):

As for what the American Psychiatric Association says about it:

❝After assessing the 120 outcome studies pertaining to the focus areas, we conclude that for two of the areas (i.e., PTSD in children and adolescents and EMDR early interventions research) the strength of the evidence is rated at the highest level, whereas the other areas obtain the second highest level.❞

Source: The current status of EMDR therapy, specific target areas, and goals for the future

Want to learn more?

To learn a lot more than we could include here, check out the APA’s treatment guidelines (they are written in a fashion that is very accessible to a layperson):

APA | Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy

Take care!

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