Therapy with an eye for detail

Our eye movements become rapid when we recall traumatic events. A controversial theory maintains that controlling this could be an effective therapy. Geraldine Walsh Investigates.

Therapy with an eye for detail

Our eye movements become rapid when we recall traumatic events. A controversial theory maintains that controlling this could be an effective therapy. Geraldine Walsh Investigates.

As someone who suffers with anxiety, depression and a few other mental health wavering conditions, I’m intrigued by therapies that are outside the normal tenure. My interest is peaked by therapies that are questioned by some and acclaimed by others. Which is one reason why Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) caught my attention.

Helena Tubridy, RGN RM, specialises in Fertility Coaching and Therapy. As a qualified practitioner of EMDR, she has witnessed the positive effect this form of therapy has had on her clients.

She almost convinces me from the get go by saying, “People often believe they need to be in extremis to access therapy, and baulk at the mention of psychotherapy. EMDR brings benefit as an audit, or NCT, to reduce mental clutter, to delete background programmes that are unhelpful and to free up mental space.”

Reducing mental clutter is certainly something many of us would benefit from but how can moving your eyes in a specific pattern be a helpful therapy?

And an effective one at that. Developed in the 1990s by psychiatrist Francine Shapiro, it is a treatment that has divided scholars while gaining many thankful patients. Shapiro noticed how eye movement became rapid when recalling traumatic memories.

By bringing the eye movement under voluntary control the resultant anxiety from the memory was minimised.

EMDR has been questioned for its efficacy with many considering it to be pseudoscience.

However, Shapiro’s initial research and work with military personnel who suffered life-limiting PTSD, created a new therapy which gained momentum.

Tubridy explains, “It is a swift and respectful modality that utilises an information processing system that exists between both hemispheres of the brain, via a physical bilateral stimulation method.

"This can be visual or for clients who are blind/visually impaired, I offer a right/left tapping on the arms or knees. The key thing is clients do it by themselves, at their own pace.”

EMDR has been recognised as an alternative treatment for conditions that prove resistant to regular psychotherapeutic interventions.

The National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence recommended EMDR as an effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2005.

This was followed by an endorsement from the World Health Organisation in 2013, recommending it for both adults and children.

While EMDR is highlighted as a treatment for extreme trauma, it works just as well for other conditions from depression, anxiety and phobias to preparing for a work interview.

I asked Tubridy what exactly happens during a EMDR session and how is it beneficial to someone who may potentially be suffering post traumatic stress or extreme anxiety. She decodes the process by saying, “The person runs a ‘movie clip’ of the uncomfortable events (for example emergency c-section drama) in their mind’s eye, during a 30-50 second sequence of rhythmic, over and back, guided eye movements, or taps.

The eye movements mimic those experienced during rapid eye movement sleep, in which events of a day are usually processed. EMDR fades out the intensity and emotion of an incident, without eroding memory.

The event has occurred, is logged, but holds no power to intrude or cause uncomfortable feelings to arise.”

Replicating the normal coping mechanism our bodies have during sleep and using Rapid Eye Movement to enable our body and mind to reset sounds like a simple and effective treatment. It’s not hypnosis, it’s not witchcraft. It appears to be a natural reprocessing.

The patient is in control, stopping or pausing treatment as they wish. Adding to that, it’s a private therapy with the patient not expected to open the flood gates and divulge upsetting details of their trauma.

Unlike other therapies, the EMDR practitioner does not need to know the details of the incident that is affecting the patient so negatively. For someone who suffered rape, sexual abuse or is unable to verbalise the details of the trauma, this is especially helpful.

Tubridy says that, as with counselling therapy, by not going into specific detail the emotion of the narrative will not become even more embedded in the neuronal system.

As part of an eight-step plan, with treatment starting during the first session, Tubridy confirms that this form of therapy is very much a brief therapy. She says that changes are noticed immediately which, as an anxiety sufferer, I would highly welcome.

“Clients tell me it does what it says on the tin, and there’s no dark Freudian introspection, homework or filling in of work-sheets,” she says.

“In fact, laughter often happens.” EMDR has a broad spectrum of clientele, meaning it appears to work for almost anyone with some level of stress inducing memories, thoughts or echoes in the mind. Tubridy’s clients are varied. Her recommendation to pursue EMDR is based on a patient’s specific needs.

“I use it strategically with clients who are anxious or stressed, have mild to moderate depression, suffer panic attacks, have lost someone they love, are after relationship break-ups and divorce.

“Clients report feeling calmed and eased after EMDR. They sleep very well, find concentration is improved and solutions to problems are easier to find. The incident or memory stops haunting them, and becomes a thing of the past.

“Confidence levels rise, they’re less self-conscious and more involved with life again.”

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up