End Recurrence: EMDR

A balding, bearded, bespeckled man with a strong Austrian accent pulls a pocket watch out of his vest. “Follow zee vatch vit your eyez. You are getting verrry szleeeepy” he drones as he gently waves the watch in front of the patient’s face. The patient’s eyes turn into spirals, and she becomes a mindless zombie.


It feels like I watched a thousand cartoons as a kid with a scene just like the one described above. Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck would be turned into a mindless automaton through the power of a gentle voice and a swaying pendulum. Hypnosis seemed to be a powerful and mysterious technique. The mystique of hypnosis greatly enhanced my impression of psychology.

Fast forward to my first uni degree in the late 90’s. This was an epic era of debunking. Psychology was becoming evidence-based and techniques like hypnosis were on the nose. Recovered memories had been shown to be usually false. The idea that we could change patients’ subconscious through indirect methods was being seriously challenged due to a lack of evidence.

I was taught to not trust any treatment which could not be theoretically understood. I was taught that psychological therapy helped people through behaviour change and, at a stretch, changing the beliefs that underpinned harmful behaviours.

But the 90’s wasn’t just a time for me to be taught to distrust psychological techniques.

In New York in the early 90’s, another psychologist, Francine Shapiro, was developing her own treatment that used a gently swaying object in front of the patients’ eyes.

According to Shapiro, her therapy was born whilst walking in the park thinking upsetting thoughts. She noticed that moving her eyes from side to side whilst walking and thinking, led to a decrease in distress. Her therapy, which came to be called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), was tested on Vietnam war veterans and sexual assault survivors with promising results.

Not to oversimplify, but the EMDR protocol basically consists of recalling the traumatic experience while the psychologist moves their fingers back and forward in front of the patients’ face. Sound familiar?

Shapiro started to conduct scientific research on this method, and the evidence started to stack up. There was something to this treatment. It was especially good at taking the punch out of traumatic memories.

I retuned to psychological study in the late 00’s. When I first returned there was still much scepticism of EMDR. And I understand why. It just seems too much like Bug Bunny’s Austrian hypnotist. And it was hard to explain why it worked (it still is): Somehow, by moving eyes from side-to-side, trauma memories become less distressing allowing for them to be reframed and put in the past.

In contrast, the dominant cognitive-behavioural model explained its success by an easy-to-understand theory: Bad beliefs cause bad behaviours cause bad beliefs.

Despite the difficulty explaining how it works, over the last 15 years, the resistance to EMDR treatment has melted away. More research has emerged testifying to its effectiveness. More practitioners have tried it and found it works.

I have started to use this treatment and found that it has some significant results. Its is wonderful to hear my clients tell me of gaining control of memories that were once too overwhelming to bring to mind.

Trauma keeps the pain of the past forever fixed in the present moment. Anything that can end the recurrence of trauma is a wonderful thing.

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