EMDR Therapy

Some events are so terrifying that the human brain does not have the capacity to process them. You may survive a violent rape or a devastating car wreck, or you may survive watching the murder of someone you love, but your brain may have trouble turning such experiences into memories. For this reason, you experience “flashbacks,” similar to reliving the original incident in a constant stream of nightmare images. You may become unable to control irrational fears and intrusive thoughts such as, “You’re not safe in a car,” “You should never go out at night,” or “Someone may kill you too.” You become jumpy and easily frightened. Your fears take over your life as you avoid certain situations, places, people and things that remind you of the original event.

When this happens, you become a victim of “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS).” About one in ten people experience it at least once during their lifetimes. The condition has been recognized for centuries, especially as something that happens to soldiers returning from wars. However, the medical profession has only had a formal name for the syndrome and included it in its treatment manuals since 1980. Luckily, there are now several cures for PTSS, and the medically-approved treatments are cognitive therapy, exposure therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

EMDR is the newest of the treatments, having been invented only in 1989 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. The greatest advantage of EMDR is that about 20 scientific studies indicate that it takes less time and is less expensive than the other therapies, but yet achieves similar results. Partly because EMDR is so new, there is not enough research to prove its effect lasts as long as traditional methods. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the American Psychiatric Association have endorsed EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSS.

When people with PTSS enter traditional therapy, it can take several sessions before they feel “safe” enough to recall the original trauma and talk openly about it. What Dr. Shapiro discovered is that most patients can bring up memories of the trauma immediately if they are concentrating on something else at the same time, and if the recollection is limited to less than 30 seconds. She discovered that if a patient moves his eyes at the same time he recalls the trauma, this somehow causes the patient’s intense emotions surrounding the event to decrease. It was already known that if a therapist could enable a person to discuss and recall the event openly, the person would gradually become desensitized and his emotional response would become less intense. EMDR became a way to speed up this desensitization process. The person could start recalling the incident often within the first or second session without experiencing terrible emotional trauma or paralysis.

EMDR therapy typically takes only three sessions to treat a one-time traumatic event. However, returning soldiers and people who have undergone years of abuse and trauma, such as ongoing sexual assaults, can require as many as twelve sessions.