The image is inescapable. A veteran who cannot escape the terrible memories of war’s horrors… a rape victim or abused child traumatized into total immobility… rescuers haunted by a tragedy that claimed a few hours or days and changed lives forever… all have lived through a traumatic event or series of events; experiencing life-affecting responses to trauma.

For those who are a part of the drama, the psychological impact is very real. Until recent years, recovery often required years of therapy, with varying degrees of success. Now, however, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a therapy method introduced in 1987, is helping trauma victims overcome their fears permanently and more quickly than ever.

Now, most people would claim that they have been fortunate enough to avoid being traumatized, mistakenly believing that trauma must be tied to a major event. With a major trauma, such as war, disease, rape, abuse, etc., you may well become “locked” in the event, and reexperience it over and over; becoming progressively more dysfunctional and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But trauma does not have to be major to have a lasting impact on your life.

Far more common are the upsetting events that may not have seemed particularly traumatic at the time. Even though they are technically “ancient history”, they can still be impactful and upsetting now. The difference is that they can be very subtle and thus their impact is frequently unrecognized. Events such as losing a parent, growing up in an alcoholic home, or being given negative messages such as, “Your sister is the pretty one, you know” or “You’ll never amount to anything” often lead to a variety of conditions and symptoms, including depression, anxiety, phobias, codependence, difficulty in relationships and jobs, and low self esteem.

With EMDR, a qualified therapist can quickly help you see disturbing memories in a new and much less distressing way. In one or more sessions, the therapist will develop an understanding of the nature of the problem. During a typical session, you will be asked to recall some key aspects of the disturbing issue or event. At the same time, focusing on the therapist’s moving fingers, your eyes are rapidly shifting back and forth, much like the movement you would experience in the deepest levels of sleep. Gradually, with several sets of the eye movements, the memory becomes less disturbing and is replaced with more positive thoughts and a lasting new meaning.

Most often, several sessions are needed to replace old interpretations of trauma with new, positive images. Some situations may, based on the therapist’s assessment, still require more extended treatment. In any case, there is no question – this is clearly an effective, accelerated method for treating even the most serious traumas.

There is overwhelming evidence that the process does work to break people free of the mental bonds that result from serious trauma and EMDR promises to be one of the most valuable tools in the therapist’s arsenal.

This article appeared in the February 2001 edition of Arizona Women’s News.