Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing is one of the most controversial treatments in modern psychotherapy. It is mainly used for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it’s also recommended for other conditions such as substance abuse, sexual dysfunction, personality disorders and dissociative disorders. Finding out about the process of the treatment, the main condition it is used to treat and how it’s believed to work gives you an overview of the treatment option. Several researchers have identified issues with the approach, however, so its efficacy cannot be guaranteed.
The treatment is mainly used in counselling for PTSD. This occurs in around 30 percent of people who experience a traumatic event, and is characterised by nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, isolation and irritability. The particular event is often relived involuntarily, and the constant state of anxiety makes relaxing in any way difficult. The types of traumatic events that might trigger PTSD include terrorist attacks, military combat, witnessing a violent death, sexual assault, mugging or natural disasters. Generally speaking, the symptoms will first appear soon after the original event, but in some cases it can take years before symptoms are experienced.
The process of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is largely concerned with how the movement of the eyes can help deal with anxiety-provoking events. This was claimed to have been developed after the treatment’s inventor, Dr. Francine Shapiro, was walking in the woods and thinking of a distressing event. She noticed that her eyes were involuntarily darting from side to side, and afterwards found that it was more difficult to retrieve the memory of the distressing event and when she did, its potency had drastically decreased. Tests of the therapy in PTSD patients showed the same positive effect.
Treatment with EMDR starts with a counsellor talking to the individual about the specific problem they’re having, and how it is affecting their life. They’ll get a general picture of the psychological and medical support the individual is currently receiving, and outline the therapy to them if it’s deemed suitable. If the individual is happy to continue, the therapist guides him or her through some relaxation exercises before commencing the main therapy.
When the individual is ready, they’re asked to bring up a mental image which represents the distressing memory while the therapist passes his or her fingers across the individual’s field of vision repeatedly. The person follows these movements with just their eyes, and afterwards the effect is assessed using numerical scales of distress. The treatment is typically repeated until the distressing memory no longer holds any weight.
How exactly EMDR is thought to be effective is a matter of considerable controversy. One explanation is that it mimics the action of REM (rapid-eye movement, or dream) sleep, and therefore facilitates the processing of information. There is also the possibility that the eye movements merely act as a partial distraction, helping the individual tackle the issue without having to confront it head-on. Over time, this exposure causes the memory to lose its impact. In this sense, it can be thought to borrow from prolonged exposure therapy. There have been numerous issues raised with the approach, such as the fact that eye movements are in no verifiable way related to memories, and that they aren’t the same as the ones that occur in REM sleep.
Despite these criticisms, the unique therapy is still advocated for people suffering from PTSD and other conditions such as substance abuse. Though we are not currently offering EMDR counselling, please check back regularly for updates to our services.