How To Heal A Troubled Mind: EMDR
Updated: Apr 7
Six months after passing my driving test, I wrote my parents’ car off. Accordioned into a tree. I was young – seventeen – and it was late; a dark country lane with unfamiliar twists and turns. I drove from a house party to buy a pack of cigarettes for boys I wanted to impress and veered off the road, the steering wheel controlled by the vodka.
Twenty-five years later and I still believe it’s the vodka that’s driving. I don’t trust myself. Despite, since that night, always being sober in the driving seat, I feel afraid I’m not the one in control. Wedged between each millisecond is a force that lurks, waiting to trick me whenever I might dare relax. For me, driving is a constant gut wrench.
Francine Shapiro PhD, an American psychologist, devoted her life’s work to unravelling tightly held traumas. She devised a therapy called EMDR – eye movement desensitisation reprocessing – as a powerful treatment to help PTSD sufferers and those with other anxiety disorders, such as phobias. Steamrolling over the sceptics, she proved its credentials and eventually had EMDR approved by the World Health Organisation in 2013. She passed away last year.
In the 1970s, Shapiro was diagnosed with breast cancer while working in New York. On recovery, she sold all her stuff and drove to California in a camper van. In May 1987, during a stroll in the park to shake distressing thoughts, she rapidly moved her eyes and noticed an immediate effect on her mood. “The thoughts weren’t as bothersome,” she said, “I wanted to see if it would work if it was deliberate, so I brought up something that bothered me, moved my eyes in the same way and saw the same thing happening.”
Over her career, Shapiro established a standard protocol for EMDR. A practitioner helps a client recall painful memories and has them focus on the feelings generated. The client then tracks the practitioner’s moving fingers with their eyes, which rapidly move from side to side for 20 to 30 seconds. The process is repeated several times within a session.
Shapiro has said: “A rape victim may start off saying, ‘It’s shameful, I should have done something.’ And at the end of the session, she is saying, ‘Well it’s his shame; that’s something he is going to have to live with for the rest of his life. I’m a strong resilient woman.’ It’s quite wonderful to be able to see such healing in action.”
Is EMDR a quick fix? Shapiro’s own research claims that 84-100 per cent of single trauma victims can lose the PTSD diagnosis after just three sessions. Before the WHO finally recognised EMDR therapy as a treatment for PTS, its effectiveness was scrutinised – and hailed - by several meta-analyses (Van Etten and Taylor, 1998; Bradley et al., 2005; Davidson and Parker, 2005; Seidler and Wagner, 2006; Benish et al., 2008; Jonas et al., 2013; Chen et al., 2014, 2015). Sceptical articles that undermine EMDR (in particular the affected eye movements) can be summed up by Harvard University psychologist Richard McNally: “What is effective in EMDR is not new, and what is new is not effective.”
Traditional psychotherapy can take years and talking to trauma doesn’t always work. Imagine someone stumbling from a car crash. Are they speaking? A scan study of patients with PTSD who recalled their traumatic experiences revealed that there is a significant decrease in the activation of the left inferior frontal area of the brain thought to be responsible for translating personal experiences in communicable language. Shock is silent.
Post-event, when anything reminds us of the trauma, we experience uncomfortable feelings. This is our unconscious mind at work, struggling to keep us safe: “Let’s not do this again” it chants. EMDR has us work directly on those sensations.
There are two leading theories behind the efficacy of EMDR: it may be that the lateral eye movements allow us to process memories similarly to rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep, or that the struggle of processing a memory while simultaneously tracking moving fingers helps to neutralise the negative charge.
When I first heard of EMDR last November, I was in Marbella, Spain on business. I’d pre-hired a car to drive to the hotel, but after a chest-tightening conversation with the Avis rep who was giving me directions, I lost my nerve and got a cab.
At the hotel bar that night, I cringed as I admitted my defeat to a stranger. She turned out to be an acupuncturist and EMDR specialist called Maire Weaver. Effervescent and kind, she told me she practised in London, where I live, and suggested I come to see her for a session.
At the session, I cried. A lot.
Before beginning the eye movement, we established a happy, “safe” memory to retreat to if the experience became overwhelming (as it often can). Maire then gently had me recall a particular occasion when I’d been paralysed by fear at the wheel. I remembered being stationary, pointing upwards on a hill, burning the clutch out as I tried to move forward. An impatient van driver blared the horn behind me.
My stomach churned, hot. My eyes tried to follow her fingers, tennis match style, as I fell deep into the humiliation of the memory. The tears fell. As we repeated the silent process, always focusing on the feelings, I began to feel less distressed. Then calm. Then relieved. Then a more solid sense of control. I smiled. I wanted to laugh: had I finally tricked the trickster? Maire told me people often laugh in her sessions when they realise the bad feelings have vanished.
Two weeks later I took an unknown route down a country lane, the kids babbling in the back of the car. But I quickly realised it wasn’t the white-knuckle ride it would normally be. I put on the radio. I relaxed. I was driving, not the drink, nor the demons. I was keen to do another session with Maire, but she said there was no need if I’d already overridden the blocked processing. “Is this the placebo effect?” I asked her of my new-found confidence. “Does it matter?” she answered, I was back in the driving seat.
Maire Weaver has been practising 5 Element Acupuncture for the last 20 years and offers Cognitive Hypnotherapy, NLP and EMDR therapies, too. She can help with:
IVF Preparation and Support
Insomnia and Stress
Pain and Depression
Drug & Substance Addiction
Weight Loss Programs
Hay fever and Allergies
See www.maireweavertherapy.com for more information.