EMDR: The documentary film

In the nineteenth century, psychiatrist Pierre Janet was the first to theorize posttraumatic stress resulted from the failure to integrate memories of a traumatic event with otherwise normal mental functioning. Current research in neuroscience and psychology now validates Janet’s original intuitions about the nature of traumatic stress. Treatments like EMDR (“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing”) also support Janet’s once radical idea.

In the presence of a perceived threat, the body (including the brain) instinctively organizes for survival — activating fight, flight, freeze, submit, or attach responses. Thinking about a threat while it’s happening can slow down the survival response, thus energy is diverted away from the frontal lobes — the part of the brain responsible for higher order cognitive processes, including creating coherent narratives of events. With the thinking part of the brain shut down, there is no way to integrate overwhelming sensory information into a coherent, meaningful account of the trauma. Instead, emotional reactions are split-off from sensory memories, muscle memories, perceptions, and thoughts also registered at the time of the traumatic event. Just as Janet once theorized, survival comes at a price: fragmented memories in search of integration haunt many trauma survivors long after danger has passed.

Posttraumatic stress (commonly labeled PTSD) becomes debilitating when stimuli in the present environment trigger split-off memories, reactivating the body’s natural defense system, including the intense fear felt at the time of the original trauma. Fear sits at the core of the failure to integrate traumatic memories, robbing people of peace of mind as they oscillate between uncontrollably remembering traumatic events and constricting awareness to avoid all reminders. In fact, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), for an experience to count as the precursor to PTSD, intense fear or horror must have been felt.

Fortunately, new approaches in psychotherapy, including EMDR, seem to treat the neurobiological effects of trauma. EMDR uses rapid, rhythmic eye movements and other forms of “bilateral” stimulation (tapping on opposite sides of the body, alternating sounds between each ear) to stimulate the brain’s natural tendency towards integration. According to its creator, Francine Shapiro, EMDR attempts to do three things: 1) reprocess negative past events; 2) desensitize the client to related present events that cause distress; and 3) create a framework for dealing with similar situations in the future. For many, the results of EMDR are stunning, quickly releasing them from habitually cycling between hypervigilant awareness and numbing avoidance of traumatic reminders.

No one knows why EMDR works, although it seems to stimulate natural processes for integrating emotional memories (stored in the right hemisphere of the brain) with the other splintered memories of trauma (body sensations and movements, autonomic responses, images, perceptions, and thoughts). Yet the results of EMDR are clear: a coherent account of the traumatic event emerges, incorporating all aspects of the experience, and ending the need to continually scan the environment for threats.

EMDR is not limited to treating posttraumatic stress, and is useful for conditions as varied as anxiety, panic, depression, grief, phobias, and addictions. (However, sometimes people who meet the criteria for a dissociative disorder require prior work towards increased integration, otherwise EMDR may actually be destabilizing.) Like all therapies that treat posttraumatic stress, safety and stabilization are necessary precursors to addressing traumatic memories.

Given the amazing success of EMDR for so many, I was glad to learn Director Michael Burns recently completed a documentary film on EMDR. Here’s a trailer for the film:

The film’s dedicated website gives the following description of the documentary:

The film will trace the history, practice, and potential of EMDR, set against the backdrop of everyday people put through extraordinary, sometimes incomprehensible, stress. Painful to consider, but these are stories all of us will live out to some degree as we try to navigate the “small t” and “big T” traumas of life: the end of a relationship, loss of a loved one, recovery after a natural disaster, or a return from a war zone.

Made for the lay person and the clinician alike, this film will chronicle the incredible story of EMDR from its inception to its refinement. It’s a narrative that’s largely unwritten, though as the story unfolds it’s changing lives each day and teaching us incredible lessons about the brain’s own ability to heal itself.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved.