A few months before the world turned upside down, I decided to get my life in order. I waited nervously outside the Union Square office of psychotherapist Dr. Gillian O’Shea Brown, author of the book Healing Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Clinician’s Guide. I was about to begin EMDR therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). I was both excited and terrified. I had read about the process, which sounded akin to hypnosis, and I imagined myself having to wear a robotic headset with flashing lights. I had a friend who received the treatment and found incredible peace from her sessions—I knew the experience would be emotionally intense but also that it could be helpful. I was scared and skeptical, but also ready to go deeper into my psyche.
In 1987, psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro noticed that moving her eyes from side to side while contemplating difficult thoughts improved her mood. Intrigued, she went on to research and develop EMDR. Dr. Shapiro suggests there are approximately ten or 20 unprocessed memories responsible for most of the pain in our lives. The efficacy of EMDR therapy in the treatment of PTSD has since been well established, as evidenced by the results of over 30 positive randomized controlled studies over the past three decades. Such findings led the World Health Organization to state in 2013 that Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and EMDR are the only psychotherapy modalities recommended in the treatment of those diagnosed with PTSD.
EMDR aims to process trauma in a more detached way than simply retelling the stories, which can be too emotionally intense. It works in eight phases: History taking, client preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and reevaluation of treatment effect. The therapist will first learn about the client’s history, while also helping them to create a sense of safety in the body. From here, key memories are identified and reprocessed. Bilateral stimulation is used at certain points in the therapy, while working through painful memories. Some of the methods are eye movement from side to side (guided by the therapist’s hand), alternating electrical pulses from a therapulse device held in both palms, headphones with alternating tones beeping from ear to ear, or glasses with flashing lights. This is based on the client’s individual preference and comfort level.
Once the memories are reprocessed in this way, your brain develops new neural pathways. According to Michael G. Quirke, an EMDR therapist in San Francisco, “a brain that can change is capable of putting to rest old feelings, learning new ways of responding, and interpreting thoughts and feelings differently. The way you think, feel, and respond as a result of trauma can be rewritten and healing can become more possible.” This process in the brain is called neuroplasticity, and ultimately it promotes the formation of new, positive associations with the original event, such as “the risk of harm has passed and I am now safe.” The brain can heal from psychological trauma, much as the body recovers from physical trauma, allowing someone to act from a place of self-awareness rather than conditioning.