Moving your eyes to deal with trauma

This post is also available in Dutch.

Not being troubled by a traumatic experience as a result of moving your eyes. This might sound implausible, but in many cases it works. How is this possible?

Drawing 'EMDR' by Angelique Tinga

Drawing ‘the EMDR Technique’ by Angelique Tinga

Traumatic memories
Following a very shocking experience one might develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, the traumatic experience is not properly processed which causes the individual to be frequently disturbed by vivid and emotional flashbacks (recollections) or nightmares related to the experience. In some cases, individuals even try to avoid situations that might trigger flashbacks. The lives of patients with PTSD are constrained by their traumatic memories. (Read more about PTSD here.)

Eye movements as treatment
About 26 years ago, the American psychologist Francine Shapiro introduced a remarkable new method for treating PTSD, known as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). In this method the patient recalls a traumatic memory under the supervision of a therapist. While recalling the memory, the patient makes quick lateral eye movements to follow a stimulus i.e., the fingers of the therapist. This is being repeated until the memory is less vivid and less emotional. In many cases, the patient can get his or her life back on the rails again.

Verdict of the scientific community
The introduction of EMDR received criticism from the scientific community. Some scholars even regarded it as a pseudoscience. This skepticism was for a large part caused by the lack of well controlled experiments and a sound explanation of the underlying mechanism. Now that extensive experimental research has been conducted (for an example see the experimental psychopathology lab of Utrecht University), it has been demonstrated that EMDR, without a doubt, works, and more insight is provided on the underlying mechanism.

How is it possible that EMDR works?
As it turns out, not only eye movements but also playing Tetris, calculating, or drawing a complex figure can reduce the vividness of traumatic memories. Therefore, it appears that the action in which you engage while recalling the memories does not matter, as long as it requires your attention and is mentally taxing. For instance, when you recall a memory, this takes up ‘space’ in your mind, as you temporarily store the information. If you conduct another task in parallel  there would be less space available in your mind to hold the memory. As a consequence of not being able to fully attend to the memory, it becomes less vivid and emotional. Subsequently, the memory is stored in a less intense form. Repetition of EMDR can therefore make the memory less disturbing over time.

EMDR has survived criticism. The critical attitude to this method has strongly contributed to our current knowledge about PTSD and EMDR, and will keep playing an important role in future research. Further optimization of this method will provide the possibility for patients with PTSD to be treated in the best possible way.

More information
How does EMDR work?
EMDR Europe

This blog was written by Angelique.
Edited by Mahur.

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