Shifting eye therapy successfully treats trauma

A recent study has found that EMDR, a once suspect therapy that involves recalling traumatic memories while moving your eyes, is one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a type of psychotherapy that, among other things, involves thinking about the traumatic event while attending to bodily reactions and moving your eyes left and right, usually following a light or the therapist’s finger.

It sounds bizarre and caused a great deal of suspicion when it first emerged, largely it was pretty much just ‘thought up’ by Dr Francine Shapiro and no-one really knows quite how it works.

However, several studies have found it to be one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, and this new study, one of best to date, has repeated the finding.

This new study, led by Dutch psychiatrist Dr Bessel van der Kolk, compared EMDR, with SSRI drug fluoxetine (aka Prozac) and a pill placebo in a group of patients diagnosed with PTSD.

After the eight week treatment block, fluoextine and EMDR were equally effective,

However, six months later, 75% who had been traumatised in adulthood and were treated with EMDR reported having no symptoms. For people traumatised during childhood, a third treated by EMDR were symptom free by the same point.

In contrast, none of the people in either group treated with fluoxetine managed to free themselves from symptoms.

Most clinicians looking at the study might suspect that eight weeks of drug treatment wouldn’t be long enough as prescriptions are often recommended for six months to a year after stabilisation.

Nevertheless, it’s an impressive result, not least because of the short 8-week treatment time for EMDR and the strong recovery rate.

One of the criticisms of EMDR is that it’s still not clear what part the eye-movement aspect plays in the therapy and exactly how it works.

What this trial didn’t do is compare EMDR to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a type of recently devised psychotherapy that is known to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders.

Both of these therapies focus on ‘reprocessing’ the trauma memories – essentially remembering and ‘reliving’ them, which seems to play a major role in preventing the uncontrolled memories and flashbacks that are part of the disorder.

This is also the focus of a recently devised combined drug and ‘reprocessing’ therapy we reported on earlier, which seems to work by dampening down bodily arousal when the memories are recalled due to the action of the drug propranolol.

Link to abstract of clinical trial.

5 thoughts on “Shifting eye therapy successfully treats trauma”

  1. How do they know it is the eye movement specifically thats helping, and not the 8 weeks time of talking about the experiance while doing a purposeful task.
    They should do one where instead of the eye movements the people play tetris or PC solitare while discussing emotionally troubling memories.

  2. Thanks for the post. I recently started attending grief therapy sessions that have a movement therapy approach. It’s been really effective. EMDR was recommended as treatment for complicated grief-related PTSD. Dunno how it works but I’m rather optimistic. I think mind-body connection and body intelligence are severely underestimated.

  3. Sounds like a combination of encoding specificity and embodied cognition. Encoding specificity is about how the context (surroundings) affect storing and retrieving memories. For example how people say that if you study for a test in conditions similar to those that exist when you take the test, you will be able to “retrieve” what you studied better.
    So in this therapy (like cognitive therapy), you are retrieving and re-encoding memories in a different, benign and less stressful context, where you have more control over the situation.
    The eye movements is where embodied cognition (and perception & action) comes in. Your body is part of the context as well. When you imagine something, you are usually “doing” it, or intending to do it. For example you imagine an object rotating, and fmri evidence confirms that the same area of your brain is active as when you are manually rotating an object (hand motor control).
    Perception (including vision) is action as well. See for example Alva Noe’s book Action in Perception.
    So having people do a different, controllable action (eye movements) while re-living their traumatic experience also over-writes, in a sense, the context of memory encoding and retrieval.

  4. I come from a severe disfuntional family. I was in alot of therapy witch save my life. What saved me from killing my self was alcoholics anonymous. That’s were my journey began. started 23 yrs ago. Little did i know that was just the start of my recovery. I got into A A may 25, 1989. I’ve been sober ever since. It says in the book more will be revealed. Had no idea what that meant. Nor did i understand the steps. Took years to understand and live by it. It took more then AA, to recover for i found out during my journey that i had severe Attention deficit disorder,syndrome. I was diagnosed when i was 48 yrs old. The puzzle was getting closer and closer to finding out why i did the things i did when i was growing up. Hitch hiked all over the country. Worked as a stripper when i was 17, drug addict of course . Can u guess what drug, speed of course. ADD requires some degree of amphetamine. Didn’t no that at the time. I was ganged rape, gone from one guy to the next. I was a liar cheat and a thief my first boyfriend at 14 was 35 yrs old. I was so abused when i was a child i carried into my adult hood. I continued to beat the shit out of my self. So all the trauma i put myself thru and the people i had harm would not go away in my head. U don’t feel the trauma until u become sober. So here comes the pain when i was diagnosed ADD my life started making sense it changed dramatically i started to read and i was able to pay attention. I can go on and on with my story. I did the foot work. I was like a Ginny pig. Post traumatic stress was my next journey all trauma from home and as adult started surfacing i ended up in the nut ward. I saw a nuro psychiatrist. Who told me about eye movement therapy. I was in so much pain i couldn’t let go of the past. I did it. . And it worked. No more pain. So years later and years of continued therapy i find out i have AAD, with depression and postramatic stress disorder. When i was in the out patient clinic they offered art therapy i took to that like no tomorrow. Because of my diagnoses and treatment. Of eye movement therapy and my diagnoses and treatment of ADD. I now am retired from highway patrol after 21 yrs of service. I live on the beach. Am a artist living. On the beach. Can u imagine that. I paint beautiful oil painting am living my dream I’ve always wanted to be in the arts i couldn’t because of obstacals got in the way of what i was put on this earth to do. Paint. They say if u do the foot work god will do the rest.

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