In the late 1980s, American psychologist Francine Shapiro was treating Vietnam veterans and sexual abuse survivors with general therapy.
Through a chance observation on one of her walks, she discovered that moving her eyes in a back-and-forth manner seemed to reduce the intensity of negative thoughts.
She took this idea and applied it to her patients, eventually coining Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy.
Andrea Gibbs Wilson, a licensed professional counselor in St. Joseph, practices EMDR with some of her patients, and explained the process as both simple and relatively complex in regards to its nuances.
“Originally it was designed just for trauma, and the theory behind that is that when we have a traumatic experience that happens to us, it is overwhelming to our brains ... and our brains have difficulty processing that,” Wilson said. “EMDR allows the brain to process those distressing memories by using bilateral stimulation.”
Bilateral stimulation has to do with our visual, auditory and tactile senses, occurring in a left-right pattern. As a result, EMDR involves having the patient think of a traumatic memory before doing a measurement of how distressing that memory is to them emotionally, mentally and even physically.
Finally, she will have the patient either watch his or her fingers, experience rhythmic tapping on their legs or hold two small devices that vibrate from left to right at a consistent rate for around 20 to 30 seconds. Then, one deep breath later, Wilson talks to the patient, asking him or her what he or she noticed about the process.
“You may understand that the abuse wasn’t your fault cognitively ... but deep down inside, you may feel like, ‘I’m bad. It’s my fault.’ So we have them think about that experience and that negative belief, and we process that to the point where there’s not a lot of distress involved in that,” Wilson said. “And what they’ll notice is those images tend to get a little fuzzy and tend to move away after you’ve processed it out, and it doesn’t have the emotional charge that it has before. It doesn’t grab you in the chest.”
The number and length of EMDR sessions tend to vary based on the patient, and some therapists may even recommend a few sessions to patients before having them return for further counseling.
However, those with trauma, anxiety, depression and even those experiencing physical pain tend to respond well, Wilson said. Even children can benefit from the therapy, and she even recommends phone apps that help guide people through the process, though unguided EMDR tends to be less successful, Wilson added.
“What I always tell people when they come in and they’re interested in EMDR is that I’ve done talk therapy for a really long time, and it’s good and I use that too – just kind of general questions like, ‘How do you think about yourself? How are things going?’ That’s helpful, but EMDR works faster and I feel like the results are better.”