Can rapid, controlled eye movements treat post-traumatic stress disorder? It might sound absurd, but it’s the defining characteristic of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR. Although EMDR was invented in the late 1980s, it has recently grown in popularity, especially for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, a mental health condition that is triggered by experiencing a terrifying event.
EMDR requires no medication, nor does it involve participating in hours of talk therapy. Instead, EMDR resembles more of an eye exam; clinicians direct patients to move their eyes back and forth, often in response to the location of the clinician’s finger, while instructing them to recall the traumatic event.
Some researchers have claimed that EMDR significantly reduces anxiety, makes disturbing memories less intense and ultimately improves the patient’s quality of life. Along with PTSD, EMDR could also help treat panic attacks, drug addiction and anxiety. The therapy is cost-effective, noninvasive and potentially revolutionary, and there are no negative side effects.
But does it work?
Understandably, there are skeptics. How could eye movements possibly reduce symptoms of any mental disorder, let alone one as debilitating as PTSD? Opponents of EMDR have argued that the benefits patients receive from the therapy are purely based on reliving the traumatic experience in a safe environment. This is the basis of exposure therapy, a treatment in which patients are instructed to remember the triggering event while under the care of a clinician. Research has indicated, however, that EMDR provides patients with something that exposure therapy doesn’t.
In January 2011, a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders investigated whether or not the eye movements during EMDR were superfluous. One group of patients with PTSD received EMDR while another group received all of the components of EMDR without moving their eyes. Patients who moved their eyes in accordance with EMDR reported a significant reduction in distress compared to the control group. They also had decreased levels of physical arousal as measured by sweat sensors on their skin. When asked to describe the effects of EMDR, sure enough, the patients told the researchers that their disturbing memories were less vivid and that they felt less anxious.
This strange, memory-blurring effect of EMDR is also present in people without PTSD. In another study, participants without any mental illness attempted to memorize a detailed image. After the image was removed from their view, they were instructed to think about the picture as much as possible and comb over every little detail in their mind. One group of participants was directed to rapidly move their eyes back and forth while trying to recall the image. Participants who performed the eye movements during the recollection period performed significantly worse on the image memory quiz than participants who did not move their eyes. Again, it seems as though something about rapid eye movements disrupts the vibrancy of memories.
Given such research – and rave reviews from PTSD patients – the American Psychological Association has identified EMDR as a valid treatment for both acute and chronic PTSD.
How does it work?
What is so special about eye movements anyway? Researchers aren’t sure – even the most vocal proponents of EMDR don’t know how the therapy dims the effects of traumatic memories. It could have something to do with interrupting the connection between visual memory and the current visual field, rendering the memory distant in comparison to what is currently happening. It could also work like a sort of artificial REM sleep; some theories suggest that REM is responsible for converting recent memories into distant ones.
More research is necessary before the therapeutic effects of EMDR can be fully understood, especially since the neural mechanisms behind memory processing are still a mystery. Regardless, the technique does appear to be effective at helping people with PTSD put the past behind them.
Sovereign Health Group utilizes EMDR in multiple treatment centers throughout the United States. For further questions, please contact 866-524-5504.