Wondering about EMDR Therapy

I am concerned about my law partner, who practices criminal law and formerly worked as a police officer. He has confided in me that aspects of a recent assault case have triggered an eruption of feelings related to an incident on the (police) job some years ago. He seems much more nervous and moody, having nightmares and sudden vivid recollections of that incident. I’m glad that he did seek help, but he apparently found some form of therapy that involves watching the therapist move her finger back and forth for a few sessions. To me, this sounds kind of “out there.”

It sounded that way to us, too, when we first learned about this approach, and it remains controversial within the field. But many therapists have now been trained in “EMDR” (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and swear by it. As we understand it, the alternating right/left eye movements are supposed to create a state in which traumatic events, encoded differently in the brain from normal memories (and packed with emotion), can quickly be re-experienced in a more detached way, without overwhelming the patient. That can be advantageous in accelerating “desensitization,” a technique that has been around for many years, in which anxiety around a particular stimulus is gradually diminished. Another familiar therapeutic strategy, known as “cognitive restructuring,” is also a component of EMDR. Cognitive restructuring, a part of many therapies, involves learning to change how we look at or think about ourselves, others, and our experiences. In the case of past trauma, the ultimate goal (in any form of treatment) would be to transform the emotion-laden memory (in many cases experienced as a “flashback,” as if happening in the present) into a “regular” memory (with emotional intensity fading over time). Most forms of trauma treatment are not brief, though the intervention can be relatively short-term when the trauma itself was time-limited and especially when the individual does not wait months or years before talking about it. Although drawing upon existing techniques, EMDR purports to provide powerful and faster results. Whether it will ultimately be seen as making a unique contribution remains to be seen (research findings are mixed), but our impression thus far is that, in the right hands, it is a safe approach. We strongly recommend that your partner, if interested in EMDR, see someone with credentials in both that technique and also more traditional forms of treatment. We can assist in making a referral.

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