As human beings we are blessed with a rational mind to figure things out, a landscape of emotions to feel things out, and a physical body to put our ideas and impulses into action. Typically, when the physical body malfunctions we tend to ingest something to make it feel better such as a drug or natural remedy. When we are depressed or anxious we may do the same thing, blame others for our pain, or shift our focus to distract us from feeling bad. Yet all along it is our beliefs about life shaped by our emotional experiences that determine how we think and feel, even physically, and it is here we need to journey in order to heal.
As spiritual seekers many of us understand the importance of the mind/body connection, however sometimes it appears that we just can’t break through our blocks to transform the pain, as if there is a lock on the mind that we cannot penetrate. We may desperately want to clear our anger or our fear but just don’t know how. We may even feel guilty because we know the truth of the situation but feel powerless to change it. Some of us may even go through years of psychotherapy in an attempt to figure the whole thing out.
It may be a consolation to know that as humans we all share a history of traumatic experiences of varying severity, with each experience capable of creating a belief about what to expect in life and what we think we can and cannot do. From sexual abuse, to being embarrassed in front of our peers, these are all forms of trauma that affect our feelings about ourselves and our world. In order to effectively move forward in life it is essential to transform the way we perceive these disturbing events so that we can be empowered to create the joyful life we desire. EMDR is a revolutionary type of therapy that can help us to do that.
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a form of therapy practiced by licensed psychotherapists that utilizes eye movements, sound impulses or tapping on the body to access memories of emotional trauma and reprocess the way we think and feel about these events. The result of this simple yet profound technique is to neutralize the debilitating effects of the trauma and free us from limiting beliefs that block us from living life to our full potential.
EMDR was discovered quite by “accident” in 1987 by Francine Shapiro, a graduate student in psychology, as she was walking through a park in Los Gatos, California. Disturbing thoughts that had been bothering her for some time suddenly disappeared, and she ruminated on why this happened. After monitoring her thought processes, she realized that when the disturbing thought came into her mind, her eyes began to move rapidly resulting in the worrisome thought shifting out of her consciousness. When she later recalled the thought, it no longer held the negative charge she previously associated with it. Curious of the impact of her discovery, she recalled other events in her past and present that upset her while simultaneously moving her eyes with the result of neutralizing the negative emotions that surrounded these experiences.
This experience inspired Dr. Shapiro to test her theory on her friends and then 70 other individuals by having them follow her finger with their eyes, concluding that the eye movements had desensitized them to their disturbing thoughts. Further experience revealed that this technique also helps to process traumatic memories, by alleviating the stress associated with them and bringing them to an adaptive resolution. When this occurs, learning takes place and the experience is stored with appropriate emotions able to guide the person in the future.
In 1988 Dr. Shapiro conducted a study of people with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including Vietnam vets and victims of rape or sexual abuse. Their various symptoms were nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, low self-esteem, relationship problems, and persistent traumatic memories. The subjects were divided into two groups. The first group was given an EMDR session, while the second group was asked instead to give a detailed account of their traumatic experiences. After only one EMDR session, the first group had a significant reduction in symptoms. The other group showed no changes. The second group was then given an EMDR session which decreased their symptoms as well. When evaluated three months later, the test subjects reported that the positive results of the EMDR treatment had held. Other researchers confirmed Shapiro’s findings in subsequent studies and in 1990, she began teaching EMDR to other practitioners.
More studies followed with equally remarkable results with sustainable positive benefits 15 months later. There are now numerous therapists that have been trained to practice this extraordinary technique, reporting positive results when all other therapies have failed. EMDR’s effectiveness was most evident with the survivors of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. In that case the FBI contacted the EMDR Institute and requested therapists to come to the aid of more than 200 survivors and their family members, as well as traumatized rescue workers and mental health providers. Laurel Parnell, Ph.D. was one of several EMDR therapists who volunteered to go to Oklahoma City and train more than 300 local therapists to continue treatment of the stricken population. In her excellent book “Transforming Trauma: EMDR”, Dr. Parnell wrote of her experience, “I will never forget hearing a grateful fireman at the closing ceremony of the training say in a voice choked with emotion, ‘It is because of EMDR that I was able to go back to work’.”
Sometimes a trauma can be cleared in one session, however, deeper core issues may take several sessions to resolve. I personally know of a flight attendant who had a frightening experience with a terrorist on an airplane. As a result she was too terrified to return to work. The airline referred her to an EMDR therapist, and after only one session she was able to return to work. She was so amazed at the transformation she experienced in that one session that she was eager to continue EMDR to work on some sensitive childhood issues she wished to resolve.
In an EMDR session, through visual, tactile, or auditory stimuli to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, memories and their related emotions surface and can be processed by the rational mind and wisdom of the “higher self” in such a way that understanding and clearing occurs. For example, in an EMDR session an abused child or adult that feels guilty and somehow responsible for the abuse can see the truth of the situation and release the guilt and the fear or anger associated with the abuse. This can then help to open the heart and free the person to attract healthy, nurturing relationships. Often traumatic experiences can cause a person to dissociate from the event causing the memory to be suppressed. Under the guidance of a skilled therapist, EMDR is particularly effective in helping to recall and process suppressed memories in a safe, supportive environment so that healing can take place. In addition to classic trauma and abuse cases, it is important to note that EMDR can be helpful for many issues, including physical pain and disease, obesity, addictions, low self-esteem, relationship issues, grief, anger, fears of all kinds, sexual issues, dental or medical trauma, and virtually any area where one feels blocked.
After reading Dr. Parnell’s book I was so intrigued by EMDR that I embarked on my own journey into the mind with an EMDR therapist. After only a few sessions, I can attest to the powerful shifts that are possible with this technique. In my case, I wore headphones that emitted a tone in each ear, back and forth from left to right, while I held small pads in each hand that vibrated left to right simultaneously with the tones. This facilitated the ability to close my eyes while recalling memories. Some therapists use lights that flash from left to right to stimulate eye movements, or alternately tap the left and right side of the body if the client’s eyes are closed. I was fortunate to work with a very gifted therapist who remarked after my first EMDR session, that what I accomplished in that one session was equivalent to what would normally take three months in traditional therapy.
EMDR is like a gateway into the deep recesses of the mind, leading us on a journey of tremendous growth and transformation. Processing continues after each session, and it is common to have enhanced dreams, flashes of insight and increased intuition long after the session. It is as if by accessing the left and right hemispheres of the brain through EMDR, the brain is entrained to work integratively as a whole, using the rational and intuitive mind simultaneously. Some therapists report that their clients experience what they believe to be past life memories during EMDR. Though professionals may not be able to validate these experiences, if true, then EMDR may have broader applications than originally perceived.
Since EMDR can access deep and disturbing memories, it is recommended that individuals seek out therapists that have been professionally trained. The Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association (EMDRIA) is a nonprofit organization established for the continued educational support and development of professionals trained in EMDR. For a list of trained EMDR therapists in your area, contact their website at www.emdria.org.