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OPINION: The eyes have it in this approach to trauma

By Olivia Lawrence

There’s a relatively new kind of psychotherapy called EMDR that’s being used more and more often to treat PTSD.

That’s a lot of initials, so let’s break it down.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, is a well-known mental health condition that typically starts with a terrifying experience. Flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety are some of its hallmarks. 

Less well known is "eye movement desensitization reprocessing," or EMDR, a treatment for PTSD that’s coming on strong according to Frontiers in Psychology and many other experts, including local therapists I spoke to about how it works.

While researching mental health treatments, to address major trauma, EMDR kept showing up as one of the modalities offered by local therapists listed on Psychology Today's website, along with the usual types of counseling. Mental health professionals in Meriden, Wallingford, and Cheshire for instance, were among the numerous area therapists whose practice offered this approach. EMDR.com estimates there are 100,000 EMDR certified therapists globally.

At first glance, EMDR seemed like some new-fangled woo-woo that’s hit the therapy marketplace. But in studying about it and talking with several people who’d experienced this approach, I learned this is a science-based treatment that makes a lot of sense.

Julie Ann Cosenza, a licensed clinical social worker at Path of Life Counseling, in Meriden, said clients using EMDR experience “100% life changing results, especially with clients who are open to it. When bodies are in the flight or fight state of trauma EMDR can help shift that pattern. Memories become lighter.”

WebMD calls EMDR a “fairly new, nontraditional type of psychotherapy, growing in popularity, particularly for treating post-traumatic stress disorder” after experiences such as military combat, physical assault, rape, or car accidents. As WebMD explains, EMDR approaches psychological issues “in an unusual way. It does not rely on talk therapy or medication. Instead, EMDR uses a patient's own rapid, rhythmic eye movements. These eye movements dampen the power of emotionally charged memories of past traumatic events.”

Working with a therapist, the client recalls distressing experiences while doing bilateral stimulation, such as side-to-side eye movement or physical stimulation, such as tapping either side of the body. Typically, between six to 12 sessions are needed.

As recounted in numerous biographies, including from the EMDR Institute, the technique was discovered by American psychologist Francine Shapiro who was searching for ways to decrease her own distressing memories, She came up with a theory about how trauma overwhelms normal coping abilities and memories aren’t stored away as they typically would be. She noticed eye movements became rapid with disturbing thoughts and ultimately found that anxiety was reduced when eye movements came under voluntary control while thinking about a trauma. Memories are then moved out of the “present” loop into the brain’s long-term memory.

That’s the short version of how the treatment works on complex brain functions, there’s much more to it, of course.

The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs has seen good success with EMDR. In an article called “A Flash of Hope,” VA states that the therapy “can help you process upsetting memories, thoughts, and feelings related to the trauma. By processing these experiences, you can get relief from PTSD symptoms ... yes, trauma-focused psychotherapy (including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is one of the most effective types of treatment for PTSD. “

The National Institutes of Health have researched the effectiveness of EMDR and also found it effective, although more research and larger studies are needed, according to the NIH website.

Some key points from NIH: “EMDR is particularly effective for individuals with PTSD,” according to a 2019 study. And this: “Of 10 studies conducted on EMDR therapy, seven found it to be a faster and more effective treatment of PTSD than trauma-focused (therapy)” This was true for a wide range of traumas.

Cosenza spoke about how EMDR “can be used to alter negative beliefs or cognition that one holds … and shift those negative beliefs.”

She said, “People may think they have to stay suffering in silence but they don’t have to …EMDR is one of the modalities, an evidence-based practice, to help them feel better.”

One aspect of EMDR that may be especially good for those struggling to overcome trauma is that the client doesn’t have to talk or go into detail about the trauma with the therapist. The healing, that shifting of traumatic memories, takes place internally. Cozensa said this may be appealing, in particular, to men who may not like to do a lot of talking about emotional stuff.

Reach Olivia Lawrence at livbyron4000@ gmail.com. 


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