The Eyes Have It

A special technique helps patients move past trauma.

In 1987, while recalling a disturbing moment in her past, a California psychologist noticed that moving her eyes back and forth seemed to reduce the intensity of the memory and the stress it triggered. That observation led Dr. Francine Shapiro to develop a technique called EMDR (eye movement desensitization and re-processing). It's used with clients who have endured combat, natural disasters, rape, assault, and other types of trauma. It's also used to help people whose experiences may be less violent, but who are crippled by certain memories.

Memphis psychologist Wally Juraschka studied EMDR with Shapiro and has applied the technique in his practice since 1994. The purpose of EMDR — which is recommended for use in trauma treatment by the American Psychiatric Association and by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense — is to help clients work through a negative memory and resolve it. "Some people think they're marked for life by a certain event," says Juraschka. "EMDR helps them make sense of it in an acceptable way."

So how does it work?

First, says Juraschka, the therapist enables the client to remember the event and to experience the emotions and self-image it stirs. Depending on their trauma, clients may think, "I'm bad, I'm dirty, I'm worthless. I'm devastated."

Once the event is identified, the therapist, often holding a pointer, moves his hand from left to right, and the client's eyes follow. This seems to stimulate the left and right brain hemispheres and the painful recollections stored there. Besides the primary event, other fear-based experiences are triggered as well, and the brain organizes them all. Juraschka, who alternates the sessions with periods of rest, explains: "It may take a while, but eventually the client starts remembering other events that help cushion the bad ones and put them in perspective. The person realizes, 'My life is not all about this.'"

Before they start EMDR, Juraschka's clients must ask the question, What do I want to believe about myself? "I liken the procedure to a dentist working with a cavity," he says. "You have to scoop out all the decay before you put the filling in. In therapy you have to replace or negate the bad image with one that's loving and positive."

While that may be accomplished with traditional therapy, Juraschka says EMDR can speed up the process: "It definitely facilitates it."

Client Melanie Wais' goal was to replace upsetting memories of Hurricane Katrina with happier recollections of her five years in Hawaii. "First I'd recall the negative times," she says, "but then through EMDR, my anxiety level would gradually diminish. It helped my life immensely."

For some clients, simply getting past their pain is paramount. When Clint Davis' 29-year-old son killed himself, the grief and physical symptoms associated with his loss were "indescribable." Davis wanted to replace those feelings with acceptance and the belief that he could once again enjoy life. During the second EMDR session, says Davis, "I bawled like a baby, I vomited my emotions. At the end, I felt like a huge load was lifted. I still have the grief, but it doesn't devastate me anymore."

An hourly EMDR session ranges from $100 to $125, and Juraschka says three sessions "can resolve the trauma significantly." Acknowledging that some professionals don't approve of EMDR, he says, "You can take a patient into intense emotional arousal with EMDR, so it can be a problem if the therapist is working too quickly. That's the worst thing in the world."

But most therapists, including Juras-chka, see it as a built-in defense mechanism: "Every 90 minutes we're having rapid eye movement, and it's an essential part of our sleep. So the mechanism is already in place. We're just moving it into the therapy room in a much more controlled way."

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