It sounds a little like hocus-pocus:
Psychotherapy that resolves old traumas in just a few sessions. Without having to dredge up a host of painful memories. All while the therapist waves his or her fingers in front of a patient’s eyes.
The therapy is called EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – and, while still controversial, it’s being practiced around the country and is widely used to treat post-traumatic stress and other disorders.
“I’ve been a therapist for 30 years, and I just haven’t found anything that comes close to it in terms of efficiency and effectiveness,” says Katie O’Shea, a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane who typically has a three- to six-month waiting list.
O’Shea has been using EMDR in her practice since 1990, shortly after attending a seminar on the topic.
At first, she thought it was crazy. One of her colleagues calls it “woo-woo that works,” she says.
But after seeing it in action at that conference, O’Shea says, “I was absolutely blown away by the rapidity of the therapy.”
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, a psychologist in California. She was walking in the park one day when she noticed that eye movements “appeared to decrease the negative emotion associated with her own distressing memories,” according to the EMDR Institute Web site.
She later tested her theory and found it effective on others.
But even after many years and dozens of studies, Shapiro and others aren’t sure how EMDR works.
“That’s one of the controversies within the mental health and psychological arena,” says Rik Muroya, a licensed mental health counselor in Spokane who works for Lutheran Community Services and has a private practice.
“We cannot explain how it works. We know it does work.”
And therapists have since discovered that eye movements are not essential to the therapy’s success. Any kind of stimulation that targets both sides of the brain will work, they say.
Some practitioners instead tap on patients’ knees or have their patients hold on to sensors that deliver alternating pulses to each hand. Others use headphones that transmit sounds to each ear.
Psychological trauma, therapists say, leaves its mark on the mind. Stimulating both sides of the brain allows it to heal by creating new networks between thought and emotion, some theorize.
Someone who has been sexually abused, for example, may continue to feel dirty and ashamed until new connections can be formed in the brain, says Adrienne Wilson-Bly, a Spokane mental health counselor who has been practicing EMDR for five years.
“The logic side and the feeling side are coming together to process information,” Wilson-Bly says.
EMDR does not erase memories or create new ones.
Successful treatment, though, should lessen the pain surrounding those memories.
“The memories do fade,” Wilson-Bly says. “They’re not as Technicolor memories. It’s no longer the driving force in your life.”
The U.S. Department of Defense has used EMDR to treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. A humanitarian EMDR organization travels around the world, treating victims of disaster and violence.
Most recently, teams were dispatched to the countries hit by last year’s Asian tsunami. EMDR-trained therapists have also worked with people following the Oklahoma City bombing, the 9/11 attacks, the Columbine school shootings and other tragedies.
But EMDR is not without its detractors.
During an EMDR training session at Sacred Heart Medical Center in 2000, a staff member posted a sign on the door indicating that even though the seminar was being held there, it didn’t mean the hospital supported it, O’Shea recalls.
W. Rand Walker, a clinical psychologist in Moscow, Idaho, attending an EMDR training session several years ago and has read much of the research on the topic.
But he considers the therapy “kind of a flashy addition to a process that’s been around for a long time,” Walker says.
He, like many of the treatment’s critics, finds little difference between EMDR and traditional cognitive-behavioral or talk therapy.
All of the treatments focus on changing the way people think about traumatic events, he says.
“The treatments are about going into that scary place with the person,” he says, “and coming out knowing this is not more than I can handle.”
Walker has also referred patients for EMDR treatment, but he would like to see more studies of the therapy before he believes all of the miraculous claims surrounding it.
Diane Young, a 46-year-old massage therapist who lives in Spokane, has undergone eight EMDR sessions in the past two months.
A variety of personal issues had left her anxious and sressed-out, she says.
“I was just trying to hold it all together,” she says.
She had tried a year of talk therapy in the past, with little result.
So, when a friend told her about EMDR, she was intrigued by the accelerated therapy.
“I did not want to spend a lot of time,” Young says. “I really just wanted to get on with my life.”
She interviewed three therapists before choosing Muroya.
In each session, she described a traumatic event while holding hand sensors or having Muroya tap on her knees.
The therapy, she says, was like reconnecting a fuse in her brain that helped her turn those painful memories into events that no longer had a traumatic hold on her, she says.
“I’m at peace,” Young says. “Nothing needs to be fixed.”