How many of you – just for the heck of it – randomly dart your eyes around, back and forth, up and down or diagonally? Most of us don’t unless we’re dreaming and having REM sleep. Research has found that this rapid eye movement, that occurs in our sleep, plays a significant role in processing and storing information. It’s like we have a built-in computer processor that runs a program every night to clear out unnecessary files and store what is needed. Though human beings are more complex than computers, our brain operates as a central processing unit and our organs are attached through nerves, just as computer components are attached by wires. If you try to load too many files on your computer, or the wires are worn down, the computer can slow down, freeze up, or just shut down completely.
Just like a computer your brain can slow down or freeze when you experience stimulation or information overload. You’re more vulnerable when you’re young and your brain is still developing. Events ranging from mildly disturbing to very traumatic can overwhelm the brain and emotions can become frozen as a result. Everyone is affected differently depending on your sensitivity, temperament or environment. We see the results of unprocessed events clearly in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when people experience nightmares, flashbacks, and panic attacks. But milder symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, unexplained body complaints and addictive behaviors (often used to mask symptoms) can also be traced back to negative past events. While you may remember experiencing unpleasant past events, you may not necessarily understand the current impact. I will often hear “I dealt with it, I’m over it”. And, it’s true to a degree. Over time, we might process parts of the event slowly, intellectually on some level, but perhaps not completely. We tend to move on and “get over it”, yet, the subconscious (emotions and body) doesn’t forget. You might hit Control-Alt-Delete on your computer to restart it, but that doesn’t mean the problem is resolved.
So why eye movements? Researchers are still studying the why, but what we DO know from over 20 clinical studies, is that a powerful transformation occurs when we recreate – while you’re awake – the eye movements you’re supposed to be experiencing in REM sleep. This therapy is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. It was discovered by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in 1987 quite by accident while on a walk. As she moved her eyes around and simultaneously thought of past events, she discovered these events didn’t bother her as much as they used to. After much research and design, we now have a protocol using eye movements to bring up past events and get them fully processed. You can see ABC’s 20/20 segment about EMDR (it’s relatively old, but explains it pretty well). More recently, Dr. Shapiro was interviewed by the New York Times in February 2012.
We know these past events get completely processed when people are no longer reporting anxiety, panic, depression, sleep has improved and mysterious body complaints are improved. Addictive urges are greatly reduced as there’s no longer a need to self-medicate. It’s fascinating to see someone bring up the negative memory – really think about it – and it no longer bothers them – it seems farther away, less vivid, because it has been filed into long-term memory where it belongs. When you think about it, we really don’t remember many events from long ago very clearly, unless something negative happened. That’s because your survival brain is designed to focus on things that may cause you physical harm, so you can run, fight, or hide. This part of the brain is primal and doesn’t always separate real harm from perceived harm, so it acts to protect you regardless. And it doesn’t always know when to stop so it keeps helping you survive long after you need to, leaving you in “survival mode”. EMDR calms the survival brain, and engages processing so that you can feel what you know to be true. That it is over.
What if you have eye problems or are blind? Good news. Over time, it’s been discovered that bilateral (right/left) sensory stimulation – including tapping and sound – can produce the same results. In fact, I like using these methods to enhance positive memories or thoughts, so that you can close your eyes and really visualize the experience.
I’ve been using EMDR with clients since 2007, and it amazes me to this day the rapid processing that occurs right before my OWN eyes. I never get tired of it. I’ve even been using it more and more lately to reduce sugar cravings and increase motivation for exercising.
Have you tried EMDR? What’s you’re experience been?