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Stress Relief Benefits From Reprocessing Bad Memories
Jane discovers her fiancé in another woman’s bed. The night of the standoff — and the messy end to their engagement — haunted her for years after the incident. The flashback to the “Discovery” scene elicits the same nausea and vomiting that happened that fateful night. Just hearing his name caused hours of crying. Her desire to see another man is thwarted by this spiral of emotional responses, and by the time she comes for therapy, Jane’s dreams of another relationship have been dashed.
To help Jane process her traumatic memories, I started another therapy technique, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Dr. Francine Shapiro, founder of EMDR, describes eight key steps in this evidence-based psychotherapy. I had entered the desensitization phase and was preparing Jane to face the memory.
“Recall images of trauma,” I instructed. “Keep the thoughts and emotions you’re going through.”
Jane reflects: “I feel sick in my stomach. I’m not as good as another woman. It’s my fault so I can’t love anymore.”
I continued to purposefully activate her disturbing beliefs and feelings.
“Focus on feelings of hurt, anger, and sadness. Feel the nausea in your stomach.”
When Jane’s thoughts and feelings were clearly in mind, I put her through an unorthodox routine.
“Now Jane, follow my finger with your eyes”.
Jane followed my fingers to the left and right, and within ten or so movements, she began to gasp and sob. (Patients undergoing this procedure often experience strong emotional and physical reactions during the initial maneuver).
“You’ll be fine, Jane. Stay with me,” I encouraged her, moving my fingers from side to side.
The figure of the ex-fiancé and the deep feelings attached to him fade away step by step with every turn of the eyeballs, followed by a deep relaxation. We continue to process every traumatic image associated with the “discovery” scene and breakup in this way.
Within three 90-minute EMDR sessions, the disastrous scene had subsided, and Jane had trouble remembering the knot in her stomach. Her daily emotional diary reveals that the “spell” was gone and wasn’t triggered when she completed a difficult task in therapy; namely, facing her ex’s demand for loan repayment.
EMDR sessions include installing positive self-statements that can be visualized, repeated, and reinforced through eye movements. We worked together to strengthen rational thinking, and by the time Jane was discharged from the hospital she was convinced… “Now that it’s all over, I’m enough, I’m worth it, and I’ll love again.”
traumatic memory. A century ago, Freud proposed that traumatic memories lurk in the subconscious, pulsating in this subterranean hell, disrupting our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Since then, scientists and practitioners have worked tirelessly to understand the function of what neuroscientists call “encoded data”: Do bad memories affect our daily lives? Can we use them to help alleviate human suffering?
I got a renewed interest in “memory work” when I read about a psychologist who used rapid eye movements to erase traumatic memories. I may think this new therapy is unscientific, but Dr. Shapiro is a behaviorist in the tradition of the greatest scientists of the past, including Pavlov, Watson, and BF Skinner. Why is this respected behavioral psychologist waving his finger in front of his patient’s eyes? I decided to find out for myself.
Dr. Francine Shapiro is a gifted teacher and thinker. She began our training session with an engaging presentation of her findings. The psychologist is taking a walk in the park, worrying about a major stressor in her life. She noticed that her eyes were moving rapidly from side to side. When she returned to those anxious thoughts, they had somehow disappeared. A key question emerged from this experience: Is there a link between spontaneous eye movements and the disappearance of emotional distress? Was some natural, neurological event alleviating her concerns?
As a behavioral scientist, she had to test her clinical intuition. Shapiro began a program treating Vietnam veterans who, decades later, continue to be traumatized by their war experiences. The overwhelming success of eradicating the trauma of war victims has spurred further developments in eye movement therapy and a revolution in mental health treatment.
For more than two decades, Shapiro has been experimenting with this exciting discovery and developing it into the fastest-growing therapy in the history of mental health. Thousands of clinicians have completed EMDR training, and the technique is being tested in controlled studies in laboratories and universities around the world. EMDR is currently considered a scientifically validated procedure for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition, successful outcomes in the treatment of other psychiatric disorders, mental health problems, and somatic symptoms have been documented.
Clinicians are reporting positive results, and the technology is now being applied to conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety and panic disorders, and grief reactions. The healing process has also been successful with traumatized children. An admirable feature of Shapiro’s approach is apparent in her training sessions: No claim to EMDR’s success can be made without scientific research to back it up.
Reprocess bad memories. To get a basic idea of what happens during EMDR, consider the following scenario: A child is surrounded by the safety of his home environment. Suddenly, the tranquility was broken by the horrible sound of Mom and Dad fighting. The child’s two heroes, the only reliable sources of safety in his life, are going through a complete delay. This leaves the child feeling scared and overwhelmed, and his reflexive emotional response is fear and anxiety. His heart was pounding and his breath was short of breath. He wanted to escape, to retreat to a safe place, but there was nowhere to hide.
Fortunately, the argument subsided, and Mom and Dad approached their child to reassure his weary nerves: “Just a little disagreement, honey. Everything is fine.” This nurturing helps, and for the time being, he can let go of trauma. But the brain has an important job to do: It stores this frightening experience in a memory network encoded as “dangerous quarrel.”
Imagine how many times this red flag was activated in childhood. Over the years of labeling, storing, and responding to stress, our brains have developed countless networks of memories to alert, prepare, and protect us from future threats. And there are billions of brain cells dedicated to the task.
As adults, relationship conflict may trigger activation of the same neural network where avoidance/avoidance becomes the norm. The distinction between past and present threats is blurred. As far as our brains are concerned, we are still in danger, and escape may be our only way to survive.
In situations of long-term avoidance of conflict, does the EMDR therapist encourage the individual to evoke and maintain the threatening memory while focusing on the compelling stimulus (a quick movement of a finger before his/her eyes)? The dual task—focusing attention and recalling memory—is inherently difficult for the brain. Also, when memory and concentration occur together, one seems to impair the other. This neural pathway for therapeutic success is one of several theories currently being investigated to help explain the rapid success of eye movement therapy.
Dual attention tasks like eye movements, when performed by qualified clinicians as part of a comprehensive eight-step treatment plan, speed up the process of change. Every aspect of therapy is accelerated: insight into problems, connection to past and present, release of strong emotions, relaxation and behavior change.
Eye movements (and other similar double-attention manipulations developed by Shapiro) have a way of breaking into the brain’s neural networks that hold dysfunctional memories. Once a clinician breaks into the network, the data comes to life. When this “release” occurs, the solution is not far away. According to Shapiro, the memory has been successfully reprocessed.
The eye as the healer. Could rapid eye movement be the neurological ‘key’ to the subconscious mind? Is mental health treatment on the verge of a major revolution, a quantum leap in the way we think about the brain’s ability to heal? It’s too early to answer these questions with a resounding “yes.” There is excitement about every clinician trained, every treatment success and study completed. A talented woman with years of clinical experience takes a simple walk in the park and reflects on her “self.” The science and practice of psychotherapy has greatly benefited from her discoveries.
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