Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy for PTSD

By Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
July 25, 2023
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy for PTSD

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a form of therapy, has grown popular because it appears effective at helping veterans recover from PTSD.

After a life-threatening event or other shock, it’s not unusual for upsetting memories of the experience to come flooding back, leading to anxiety and difficulty sleeping. But sometimes the reactions don’t go away and may get worse, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Without effective help, PTSD often leads to social isolation, combativeness, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy attempts at self-medication with drugs and booze.


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American veterans who’ve seen combat and faced violent life-threatening experiences are at heightened risk for the condition, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Center for PTSD. There are several forms of treatment for PTSD, including individual therapy, group counseling, and medication.

Another approach called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a form of rapid eye movement therapy first developed in the l980s, has grown popular because it appears to help veterans recover from PTSD.

For EMDR therapy, a person suffering with PTSD moves their eyes rapidly back and forth while focusing on hand movements, such as tapping, or sounds. At the same time, they talk about the traumatic events that sparked their symptoms.

Although researchers don’t know exactly how it works, rapid eye movement therapy appears to change how a person reacts to memories of trauma over time. It aids with relaxation and eases emotional distress, too.

Dozens of studies show the therapy can be a relatively quick and long-lasting PTSD treatment. It has a “level A” rating from the Veterans Administration for effectiveness.

For George, a 22-year-old veteran, it may have saved his life.

After serving two tours in Iraq, George received an honorable discharge following his first suicide attempt. (Recent veterans are committing suicide at a much higher rate than people who never served in the military.)

Back in the U.S., he tried to adjust to civilian life, but felt isolated. His fiancée broke up with him, and traumatic memories of war haunted him, including the death of a close friend, his own injury sustained in a frightening mortar attack, and his killing of an Iraqi combatant. George began to avoid anything that reminded him of his war experiences, including watching television news.

Sleep, interrupted by nightmares, became more difficult. George also experienced episodes of raging, explosive anger, causing estrangement from many of his remaining friends. Another suicide attempt followed. After a second psychiatric hospitalization, he was diagnosed with PTSD and began EMDR therapy for his condition through the VA.

George was able to work through the painful memories that had haunted him and triggered his psychological stress during a series of EMDR sessions, guided by psychologist Susan Rogers, PhD, who specialized in the treatment of combat-related PTSD for the VA.

The brain normally sorts out daily experiences, stores the information you need, and releases what you don’t need. But when people suffer from PTSD, their brains don’t completely process traumas such as George’s frightening combat experiences, causing recurring vivid memories, bad dreams, anxiety, and other symptoms.

“When a client comes in for EMDR, I ask them to identify the most disturbing part of the trauma memory,” Rogers said. “Usually there is one image that is the most disturbing. I ask them what negative belief about themselves goes with that picture, what emotion they’re feeling, what sensations they feel in their body, and then have them focus on that while we do brief sets of eye movements. I usually just have them follow my hand back and forth with their eyes. The eye movements help people relax enough to think clearly about the trauma, sort it all out, and resolve it.”


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July 25, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA