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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

A man emerges from a terrible accident involving death and fire. He has his life, and he’s grateful for it, but his brain may be working overtime to prevent that moment from ever occurring again. It’s rapidly recording:

  • Where the man is standing
  • How fast his heart is beating
  • What he hears
  • The scent of the air
  • The view before his eyes

The brain records this information in order to keep the man safe in the future. If he faces these exact experiences again, he’ll know that his life is at risk, and he can take appropriate steps to protect himself. But sometimes, this protective feature goes awry. The man smells smoke and he’s suddenly flooded with all of the sights, sounds and feelings from that day. While he’s not in danger at the moment, his brain believes that he is. He also dreams about that day, and he can’t make sense of those dreams. He’s trapped in a memory he can’t resolve.

For many people, memories become a source of severe stress and anxiety. And sometimes, they turn to addiction to ease their pain. In fact, according to a study published on the website Questia, many people turn to alcohol abuse in order to help them forget their traumatic memories. Helping these people with their addiction issues means helping them process their memories. Sometimes, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help.

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Making Sense of Memory

The brain uses memory in order to process information. Often, it records a significant amount of data at one time, and then it replays that data at night, while people are sleeping. As the images play, the eyes move back and forth in a sweeping motion and the brain moves those memories from short term-storage to long-term storage. Researchers aren’t quite sure why the eye movements facilitate this action, but they do seem to play a role.

Eye movements like this, done while awake, might also be soothing. In 1987, while walking through a park, a researcher named Francine Shapiro also noticed that her feelings of stress and anxiety were lessened when she swept her eyes across a scene. She began to develop a formalized eye-movement and memory technique for her patients, and this has been formally recognized as EMDR. Here, by encouraging these eye movements in patients who are awake, therapists work to help patients process their memories, reduce their stress and feel better.

According to the EMDR International Association, EMDR uses eight separate stages of therapy:

  • History and treatment planning, where the person outlines the incident in broad strokes, and the therapist and patient determine how therapy will progress
  • Preparation, where the patient learns more about EMDR and how to stay relaxed during treatment
  • Assessment, where the patient determines an image that best captures the event, a statement that summarizes how the person felt at the time (“I feel powerless.”) and a statement that summarizes how the person would like to feel about that event (“I am safe now.”)
  • Desensitization, where the patient thinks of the image while following the therapist’s hands with the eyes
  • Installation, where the person begins to truly believe the new, replacement statement
  • Body scan, where the person focuses on the unpleasant memory and a body scan is performed to make sure the body is not demonstrating symptoms of stress that the person is not reporting
  • Closure, where the person uses techniques to reduce stress from the session
  • Reevaluation, where the person reports how the last session went and he/she feels now

The therapy can also be modified slightly, and sessions can run in different ways. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that some therapists use sounds in headphones to guide eye movements, while others make small tapping sounds to move the eyes.

It’s important to note that EMDR results can actually be measured. For example, if the patient isn’t completely honest while speaking, the body scan will pick up that deception. A racing heart, sweating palms or shaking figures could indicate that the person is still feeling stress, and more work must be done. These responses can’t really be controlled by the conscious mind. In other words, they are measurable responses that can be tracked through time.

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Efficacy Reports

Researchers are quick to point out that they’re not certain why EMDR seems to work for some patients. In the past, since researchers weren’t certain of the pathway adjusted by the therapy, some experts claimed that the therapy didn’t work at all. Now, the consensus seems to be that EMDR can be effective in helping some people overcome their memories.

For example, according to a video published by the American Psychological Association, 84 to 94 percent of people who receive EMDR for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a resolution of their symptoms at the end of three sessions. Similarly, a study published in the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic found that patients provided with EMDR improved on both depression and PTSD scores, compared to patients who received no treatment at all. It’s clear that this method has the ability to help people move past their memories and improve their quality of life.

Finding studies that highlight the efficacy of EMDR for addiction treatment is a bit more difficult. Often, people who have EMDR treatment are diagnosed with a mental illness such as PTSD, and so their results are included in studies such as those quoted above. Perhaps the researchers didn’t split addicted people with PTSD out of groups of people studied for their PTSD. One interesting study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies may provide some insight, however. Here, the researchers posit that people who have gambling disorders have high levels of anxiety due to their addictions, and therefore, EMDR could be used to desensitize them to the sights and sounds of gambling. At the end of this study, researchers found that EMDR did help those with gambling addictions recover, and they performed better than people who received other forms of addiction treatments. More research on this topic is ongoing.

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Final Thoughts

At the moment, EMDR is typically used as a therapy to treat PTSD and other anxiety-based disorders. While some therapists might use it for other conditions, it has not been widely studied, and some insurance programs might not pay for treatments done in this sort of experimental fashion.

In addition, EMDR can be difficult for some people to endure. Reliving the event in these sessions can be hard, and people with heart conditions or some underlying health condition might have trouble with the added level of stress they feel in their sessions. A visit to the doctor for a checkup might be in order before these people sign up for EMDR.

And finally, EMDR is a medical treatment that should be given by someone who has training in the procedure. It might sound like a simple enough therapy for anyone to perform, but just thinking about the memory while someone sweeps a finger back and forth is not likely to achieve great results, no matter why the therapy is provided. Instead, it’s best to work with someone who has taken classes, has performed the procedure before and who can explain it thoroughly and properly, based on scientific research. This is not the sort of therapy that an amateur can do properly.

At The Canyon, we offer EMDR as part of our treatment package for mental illness and addiction. While not all of our patients will benefit from this approach, we’ve had some great success in helping some people move on from their trauma and move forward with their lives through the use of EMDR. If you’d like to find out more about this treatment, and whether or not it’s right for you, please contact us today.

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