EMDR: Hypnosis, Hype, or Highly Effective?

October 12th, 2022

Advancements in the treatment of Addiction and Metal Health are growing. In the not-so-distant past, both addiction and mental health did not receive much attention other than baseline treatment systems that bordered improper of neglectful. From talk therapy to 12-step, or even an intensive in-patient treatment program- the field of substance abuse treatment has seen a sharp increase in care. Some of these treatment programs are definitely “outside of the box” treatment.

Today, I want to introduce you to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. I know, it’s a mouth full, consequently we use the acronym EMDR. EMDR was developed in 1987 by a doctor by the name of Dr. Francine Shapiro. While undergoing cancer treatment, Dr. Shapiro came across this treatment almost by accident. Her way of processing her daily events? She would simply sit and watch people’s daily activities in the park. Cars driving by, people walking up and down the sidewalk. Back and forth, left to right, and right to left. Dr. Shapiro had an epiphany, much like REM sleep- the minds way of sensitizing and reprocessing information. This back-and-forth movement of the eyes helped her to unlock or process the traumatic events she had been experiencing while undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Hence, the birth of what we now call EMDR.

So, what is EMDR? Does it work, and if so, how? And, it sounds like hypnosis, is it hypnosis? Let me clear the air here. It’s not hypnosis. If I’m honest, that was my initial reaction to the idea of EMDR. EMDR, simply put, is an addition to your typical treatment process for PTSD and trauma.

First is the preparation process. Your counselor or therapist will ask you a series of questions where they may be looking for a history of seizures, migraine headaches, eye problems, past head injuries, and certain brain structure neurological issues. Second, is a 28-question survey which gives an indication on the client’s past trauma, coping skills, history of dissociation or “tuning things out”, and or deflection of problems (i.e., “that’s just life”). None of these things mean the client is disqualified from the treatment, it just means the therapist may try different approaches to the treatment.

Once your therapist has decided on how to make headway into your treatment, you’re as good as gold to start. The therapist will start by taking you to a “Safe Place”. This is the basis of your journey into your mind. A place where you feel, well, safe and calm. This place can be real or artificial. As you make that journey into your psyche, the therapist may ask you to go back to this place if you start to feel uncomfortable. The process for clearing trauma targets is the same as finding your “Safe Place”. The thing that I thought to be most profound was that clearing these targets is not particularly done by the therapist, but you yourself. The therapist is merely a guide through the journey.  

 Now, I was lucky enough to interview an intern I work with, Sarah Viles, Master of Social Work at University of Texas San Antonio. Sarah offered to take me through a little session of my own. Sarah met with me in my office, sat me down and talked with me about what she was going to do. She explained the process, what the process is for, as well as giving me most of this information I’ve passed on to you here. Once I was comfortable and understood everything, with a bright grin across her face Sarah lightly drops her hands into her lap, and chipperly asks, “ready?”- and we started the EMDR.

Sarah, sitting in front of and to the side of me, held up her hand and with two fingers in front of my eyes- started waving her hand back and forth. This eye movement from left to right, encourages bilateral stimulation of the brain. This bilateral stimulation works directly on the traumatic portions of memories. It is the bilateral stimulation that allows the two sides of brain (bi-lateral) to communicate with one another to illicit the reprocessing portion of the treatment. She went through a series of passes and stopped. Sarah then asked me to think of somewhere that I felt safe, calm, and happy. We went through this process a few times, elaborating on the scene more and more each time. The funny thing is, with each series of passes of her fingers, the setting became increasingly vivid. Before I knew it, I had completely relived a scene from my trip to Tulum Mexico, Tulum is my happy place. Sarah and I, in the interest of time, did not dive into any trauma I might have. But I had a very good idea of the process after our visit.

I think it’s important to note that during the treatment the therapist or counselor may be paying particular attention to certain things like, feelings, smells you might remember, even objects within the memory. When it comes to the human mind, there is a triad of senses that are associated with traumatic events. Thinking, emotion, and a physical body. This means that these events are often “tied” to other sensations, not just the memory or thought. (This is the reason why certain smells remind us of things). Given this information, the therapist will be looking and asking the client about these other emotions, feelings, or even smells associated with these events. The therapist will often ask the client to “go with that feeling”, whereby the therapist will be looking for an expansion into the event through that sensation.

Lastly, what is happening in your mind during this treatment? How is this working? Why is it working? Like Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM Sleep), your brain is processing information. The Repetitive eye movement becomes calming or distracting. This is what a therapist calls desensitization, which makes it easier to recall traumatic moments. With this desensitization comes a change or shift in the feelings of these traumatic moments and feelings about the client’s self-worth. This shift or change is referred to as reprocessing. I’ll reiterate two things mentioned before. That big phrase I used earlier “bilateral stimulation of the brain”, is what’s causing the reprocessing portion of the treatment. And the true healing comes from your journey back into the memory. So, through this treatment, you are treating yourself, with the help of a guide of course.

The world we live in is constantly evolving in many different directions. Mental health and addiction therapy are evolving right along with it. These bold treatments on the forefront of care are light years ahead in terms of wellness. Formerly, certain traumatic events, and Military related PTSD were terrifying and borderline untreatable. Thanks to visionaries like Dr. Shapiro and my colleague Sarah, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. The light grows brighter every step you take. In the thought of light, note; there is no such thing as darkness, only less light. Coach.