Processing trauma with eye movement therapy

By RACHEL HUANG | September 20, 2018

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Laitr Keiows/ CC BY-SA 3.0 

EMDR is a type of therapy that uses eye movements to treat PTSD and other mental disorders.

Researchers have recently found that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) may suppress fear-induced activity in traumatic memory recall. 

In 1987, Francine Shapiro discovered that her eye movements had a desensitizing effect, meaning that they were able to decrease the negative emotions associated with her traumatic memories, according to the EMDR Institute. This eventually led to the discovery of EMDR therapy.

EMDR is essentially a form of psychotherapy that is guided by the adaptive information processing (AIP) model used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with the potential to treat other mental disorders. The AIP model, developed by Shapiro, describes the processing system as one that incorporates new experiences to an existing memory. 

The AIP model suggests that disturbing experiences in the past might continue to induce feelings of stress because the memory itself was initially processed inadequately. 

The unprocessed memory, with conflicting emotions, thoughts and sensory perceptions, remains frozen, and the memory is unable to assimilate with other memories. This results in a memory that only induces these negative feelings, causing the symptoms of PTSD or other mental disorders.

However, researchers suggest that EMDR provides the tool needed to reconstruct the disturbing feelings associated with a traumatic memory by allowing adequate processing of the memories themselves. By focusing on the memory directly, it becomes possible to not only change the way the memory is stored, but also the feelings associated with that memory. 

EMDR focuses on three time frames — the past, the present and the future — to identify memories, modify current triggers and to include future goals. In this eight-phase treatment, EMDR utilizes eye movements and rhythmic stimulation such as tones and taps to begin to digest, or process, the memory. 

First, the patient is asked to recall a specific image or traumatic memory and to focus on a negative feeling associated with that memory, all while following the clinician’s hand that is moving across the patient’s visual field. Then they must pick a positive self-boosting statement that they would like to believe instead.

As the patient begins to process the memory more and more adequately, the disturbing feelings become replaced by a positive experience, and the new positive emotions become associated with the traumatic memory. 

Lycia D. de Voogd, the corresponding author of a study published in JNeurosci, investigated the neurobiological mechanisms of EMDR. 

Voogd was able to find that although side-to-side eye movements were able to deactivate the amygdala — an area in the brain that is responsible for processing fear — amygdala deactivation isn’t eye-movement specific. 

They found that a working memory was also able to suppress amygdala function. 

In a second experiment done by Voogd and her colleagues, they demonstrated that deactivation of the amygdala enhanced extinction learning. According to ScienceDaily, extinction learning is a cognitive behavioral technique that reduces the association between a stimulus and a fear response.

“These findings provide a parsimonious and mechanistic account of how behavioral manipulations taxing working memory and suppressing amygdala activity can alter retention of emotional memories,” the study concluded.

Just as the body can heal from physical trauma, the mind is able to recover from psychological trauma through EMDR therapy. 

Although EMDR therapy seems to help activate the mind’s natural healing process in dealing with mental trauma, the effects of EMDR processing continue to remain controversial among psychologists in the field.

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