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EMDR is Not Hocus-pocus

Many people who have experienced trauma, myself included, often distrust new, trendy healing techniques when we hear about them.  We say to ourselves, EMDR–hmmm–Eye Movement Sensitization and Reprocessing. So you watch a wand wave back and forth as you describe a memory of being assaulted?  You watch a flashing light as you tell about the fall onto ice when you hit your head? Remembering a beating your father gave you at age eleven, your eyes move back and forth following a little, red ball?  Sound like hocus-pocus.

I first heard of EMDR over ten years ago. If a dear friend hadn’t told me about her breakthrough–being able to drive again on freeways–I would have dismissed it outright. As I understood it, she had a car accident years prior that had limited where and when she could drive. Wanting more freedom, she tried EMDR. The thing is, now that I’ve experienced EMDR myself, this technique involves much more than watching a wand wave back and forth. It has to do with the client/therapist relationship. With a trained EMDR therapist, a client establishes personal goals, identifies key, past hurtful experiences and/or present symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and determines which issues to target while doing EMDR. For me, the dynamic between client and therapist is key in this process.

Here is an excellent example of the process from the book Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR. A marine returned home from deployment to Iraq experiencing insomnia, depression, anxiety, stomach problems, nightmares and other problems. He started EMDR therapy hoping for relief. One key memory stood out. When a car drove straight for his platoon despite warnings to stop, he and his comrades opened fire. At one point, an old woman fell out of the car bleeding profusely and because of the rule for soldiers not to approach a vehicle until it had been inspected for a bomb, he could do nothing to help her. She died in this incident, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her. Most likely, as he recounted this story, he was following a wand with his eyes.

The therapist then asked him, likely in-between wandings, whether the old woman  reminded him of someone. He remembered his grandmother who had lived with his family for two years. When he turned eight, his grandmother, unhappy living with his family, returned to Nigeria. She died shortly after from cancer. He felt responsible for her death as he did nothing to prevent her from leaving. He hadn’t protested her decision or tried to stop her and felt guilty. He felt that if he could have kept her from leaving, she wouldn’t have died. As he shared this memory, he was probably following the wand, or whatever object, with his eyes back and forth.

As the session progressed, the therapist asked him to pay attention to his stomach and think of any earlier time that he felt guilty for not saving someone. He remembered when he was six, he and his younger brother were running over rocks. His brother fell and hit his head, and he was beaten by his father for not taking care of his brother (131-134). These early feelings of helplessness and guilt were brought to the surface by the death of the old woman in Iraq, feelings that became obsessive,  contributing to his depression.

Are you getting a feeling for the process? You identify a disturbing experience, and as you describe it, you follow the wand’s movement back and forth with your eyes. You are resetting something inside. In-between wandings, you identify related memories and in this way, you reorganize or reprocess these formerly unprocessed memories. The theory is that EMDR facilitates their being stored differently and when one recalls them, they do not cause disruption.

EMDR is a scientifically proven method to relieve the stress of the suffering, resulting from unprocessed trauma. (Shapiro includes a list of controlled studies in the Appendix for chapters 1 and 2.) While one method may not work for everyone, don’t eliminate it from your list of possible strategies in thinking about healing from trauma. In fact, I hope this post convinces you to try it. EMDR is transforming my life. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t be hocus-pocused!

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