January 2022 was one of the most profound months of my life lived thus far - and not for the reasons one might think. While it carried significance as the month prior to my three-year wedding anniversary and marked one year since Joe Biden’s ascension to the presidency, it was more importantly when I started learning EMDR. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a form of psychotherapy discovered by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1987. I say discovered because Dr. Shapiro didn’t intentionally think about upsetting imagery while watching an object move across her visual field. Even psychotherapists aren’t that crazy. But accidental as it was, her discovery is to psychology what the New World is to geography. Perhaps uncontacted tribes practiced EMDR for millennia, but modern psychology accredits it to Shapiro nonetheless.
As indicated above, EMDR involves thinking about upsetting memories while watching an object move back and forth across the visual field. These memories are in many cases associated with traumatic events, but can also be related to anxious, depressive, or obsessive thought content. Traditionally, the objects in question are therapist’s fingers, though recent proliferation of virtual technology allows for the use of complicated machines, like pointers and spoons. Some therapists with poor monetary management skills invest in alternating light bars. In any case, when this protocol is conducted on a given memory, something in this equation - because nobody is actually quite sure how EMDR works - leads to the alleviation of suffering associated with targeted memories.
Before learning EMDR, I thought of therapy as a process that was primarily about talking. Of the endless persons helplessly blundering through life, some were chosen by fate to receive money in exchange for listening to the rest, and that was called the therapeutic process. The profound revelation of cognitive psychology taught therapists to help clients by explaining how much happier and calmer they could be, if only they weren’t so depressed and anxious all the time.
EMDR is a total game-changer. Instead of therapy being all about the therapist-client dialogue, much of the focus is on clients’ internal processes and making sense of themselves, by themselves, for themselves. Once clients are immersed in the process, the therapist becomes an observer, watching people heal at rates unimaginable in traditional talk therapy.
Even as I began training, I was very much the skeptic about whether the EMDR protocol could be significantly helpful, if at all. I signed up out of faith in the psychological giants who endorse EMDR and the knowledge that its being in vogue would likely make it a worthwhile investment. The results, however, have been completely astounding and continue to surprise me in each and every EMDR session. Even individuals with histories of severe, complex trauma show signs of change, whereas previously they tended to spin their wheels. People who struggled for years to connect with any significant emotion find themselves doing so continually and more and more deeply.
There are two objectives I have in sharing this. The first is obviously and unabashedly self-promotion. The second is the possibility of bringing healing to those who have been searching for it, possibly for years or decades. EMDR is assuredly not a cure-all and there are a number of competitive alternatives, but it just might be worth a try.
By Elliott Blitenthal