A therapy called EMDR is helping patients at RiverMend Health Center in Atlanta move past traumatic memories and focus on their recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, is a type of psychotherapy that helps change how patients react to traumatic memories. The goal is to diminish the psychic pain, anxiety and distress associated with recollections of negative life experiences, explained Ansley Campbell, a therapist at RiverMend Health Center who is trained in EMDR.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs supports EMDR for treating veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, while the American Psychiatric Association and the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies also recommend its use.
A single session of EMDR can help
EMDR was developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro, a California psychologist, who noticed that moving her eyes from side to side alleviated the emotional impact of her own troubling memories.
During an EMDR session, the patient is asked to think about a specific traumatic event, while following the finger motions of the therapist. Afterward, the patient rates the level of distress caused by the memory. (Though EMDR started with the concept of following visual stimuli, today, therapists may also use sounds or other stimuli. At RiverMend Health Center, Campbell uses hand taps.)
The process is repeated multiple times until the person is no longer troubled by the memory. Often, this can be accomplished in a single session, Campbell said.
“It continues to amaze me, with every single person I work with,” Campbell said. “After each session, patients are telling us that the anger, fear, rejection or sadness they felt associated with the traumatic memory is significantly diminished, and instead they feel peaceful and calm.”
The science behind EMDR
While the exact mechanism of action hasn’t been proven, studies indicate EMDR works. A 2016 analysis of 15 randomized-controlled clinical trials found that EMDR “is a useful, evidence-based tool for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder,” according to the study published in Revista de Psiquiatría y Salud Mental, a European journal.
Shapiro has also published numerous studies in peer-reviewed journals over the last 30 years showing effectiveness of EMDR.
Some experts believe EMDR helps to reprocess memories so that when they are recalled again, they lose some of their potency.
Typically, the emotional reaction provoked by a memory, even a disturbing one, fades over time, Campbell explained. But in people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or who have experienced significant trauma, memories of the event can recur again and again, causing prolonged stress and anxiety.
“One way to think of it is, the brain is taking in all this information, processing things and storing what’s useful in little filing cabinets,” Campbell said. “When you experience trauma, it’s like taking a lot of folders and stuffing them in there so you can’t close the filing cabinets. The memory gets stuck.”
The goal of EMDR is to allow the disturbing memory to become “unstuck.” The patient still remembers what happened, but the memory isn’t triggered as readily, and when it is, the emotional reaction it provokes is far less intense.
“The brain is doing what it needs what to do to put those folders back in place, so you can close the drawer,” she said.
For patients in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, dealing with past trauma or anxiety-provoking memories is important. “A big contributor to relapse is trauma that hasn’t been addressed,” Campbell said.
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