Its speed makes EMDR particularly attractive to many clients and therapists. Originated in 1988 and constantly refined since, the methodology radically changes preconceived notions about trauma and the psyche. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. EMDR-centered therapy is proving that the mind can in fact heal from psychological trauma much as the body recovers from physical trauma. When you cut your hand, your body works to close the wound. If a foreign object or repeated injury irritates the wound, it festers and causes pain. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. EMDR-centered therapy demonstrates that a similar sequence of events occurs with mental processes. The brain’s information processing system naturally moves toward mental health. If the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a trauma, the emotional wound festers and causes intense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing resumes. Using the detailed protocols and procedures learned in EMDR training sessions, clinicians help clients activate their natural healing processes. These results are validated by research.
More positive controlled outcome studies have been done on EMDR than on any other method used in the treatment of trauma. The four most recent studies show that 84%-100% of single-trauma victims no longer have post traumatic stress disorders after only three sessions.
Research has repeatedly validated the rapidity and long-term effectiveness of EMDR treatment. The results of the first study were presented in 1994 at a press conference called by the American Psychological Association (APA) and were published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, one of the most widely respected psychological journals. Principal investigator Sandra Wilson reported that subjects who received only three sessions of EMDR treatment got substantial relief from symptoms including depression, anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, and phobias. These symptoms had stemmed from traumas that occurred anywhere from three months to 54 years earlier. They had plagued the subjects continuously since their onset–an average of 13 years. A 15-month follow up study published in the same journal indicated that the treatment gains had maintained, or increased. Subsequent studies have repeated such results. For instance, in a 1998 study funded by the large HMO, Kaiser Permanente, it was found that 100% of the single-trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after five hours of treatment. Results were published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.
In another study, also presented at the 1994 APA meeting, Dr. Howard Lipke, a specialist in post traumatic stress disorder, surveyed 1,300 EMDR-trained therapists about their experiences using EMDR. These clinicians reported having used EMDR with 10,000 clients, and 75 percent said it was more effective than anything else they had ever used.
In 1998, a comprehensive meta-analysis of all trauma treatments, including pharmaceuticals, found EMDR to be effective and more efficient than other methods. In 1999, treatment guidelines reported by The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies classified EMDR as effective for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.
EMDR is currently being used by the FBI for their traumatized personnel and is the treatment of choice at a number of major trauma centers, including the world-famous Menninger Clinic.
How Trauma Survivors Experience Treatment
EMDR is a complex eight-phase treatment. Eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation) are used during one part of the session. After the clinician has determined which traumatic memory to target first, he asks the client to hold different aspects of that event or thought in mind and to use his eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision. For reasons believed by some Harvard researchers to be connected with the biological mechanisms involved in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, as this happens, clients begin to process traumatic memory and disturbing feelings. Once the eye movements set this innate self-healing mechanism into motion, the client begins spontaneously associating other memories, thoughts and feelings with the originally targeted trauma. The result is a chain of associations, each of which the clinician may select as a target for more eye movements. By the time the various chains of association come to an end, the trauma has lost its negative charge and no longer maintains its destructive hold on the client. It becomes simply another event in the history of his life.
In successful EMDR therapy, the meaning of painful events is transformed on an emotional level. For instance, a rape victim shifts from feeling horror and self-disgust to holding the firm belief that “I survived it and I am strong.” Unlike talk therapy, the insights clients gain in EMDR result not so much from clinician interpretation, but from the client’s own accelerated intellectual and emotional processes. The net effect is that clients conclude EMDR treatment feeling empowered by the very experiences that once debased them. Not only have their wounds closed, they have transformed. Events take on new meaning in clients’ lives. As a natural outcome of the EMDR therapeutic process, the clients’ thoughts, feelings and behavior are all robust indicators of emotional health and resolution.