Recovering from trauma is difficult for anyone because trauma is a very individual experience. An event that will cause one person to suffer from PTSD, depression, and anxiety, might not be a big deal to someone else.
Treatment of trauma is difficult because of this, but one method might be a drug-free way for some trauma survivors to move past their troubles and on to a more productive life. Dr. Francine Shapiro pioneered Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in 1987, after experiencing relief from her own painful memories as she walked in the woods. She was moving her eyes from side to side as she thought about some events and the eye movements seem to help. When Shapiro recalled her traumatic memories, her eye movements appeared to correspond with the memories becoming less and less bothersome. She began to study the method and eventually did case studies and clinical research on the technique.
In her first clinical study, she randomly assigned 22 individuals with traumatic memories to two groups. Half of the participants received EMD training, and half received the same therapeutic procedure with imagery and detailed description replacing the eye movements. The study results showed that the participants who had used the EMD training had a significant reduction in distress symptoms and increased confidence and positive beliefs concerning their trauma. Patients in the group who used imagery still struggled after the study compared to the EMD group.
In her study published in 1989, she wrote, “A single session of the procedure was sufficient to desensitize subjects’ traumatic memories, as well as dramatically alter their cognitive assessments.” In the same year, three other studies on trauma therapy were published. All of the studies used flooding and exposure therapy, with mixed results. Shapiro’s studies and her methods of eye movement continued to offer trauma patients better results in fewer sessions. Her work was not without controversy, however. She has been erroneously credited with saying that EMD could “cure” PTSD in one session, but of course, this is not the case, and Shapiro never claimed it was. She continued work on her method and in 1991 changed the name of the method to EMDR to include “reprocessing” as part of the treatment protocol.
Before EMDR could be considered more than just an experimental therapy approach studies had to be conducted to replicate the results she was getting in her research and practice. She taught the practice to other licensed clinicians, but in a very controlled way, ensuring that her teaching materials and classes were uniform and taught the same way to accredited professionals. By 1995, her method had been validated in other studies and was no longer experimental. Her textbook, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures” was published and has become the standard for EMDR students. PTSD is a growing problem, from military service members and veterans to victims of sexual assault and other trauma. It’s a tough condition to treat, but EMDR therapy has emerged as a drug-free way to help patients process trauma and heal.
Recently, Recovery Centers of America (RCA), a treatment center for trauma and addiction, announced a program for first responders that includes EMDR training to help police officers, EMTs, and firefighters deal with traumatic memories of events they may have encountered in their work. Many first responders will self-medicate with alcohol and drugs as a result of facing trauma. While the RCA program offers substance abuse counseling, they have added EMDR therapy to the program. In a press release, Clinical Director Chris Willson stated, “Our brain doesn’t always process trauma effectively. People can experience dreams reliving that trauma or encounter something in their regular day that triggers a memory. This can lead to unhealthy coping that includes drugs or alcohol as a way to suppress the experience.” For more information on this method of treating trauma, take a look at the video below