IT WAS A SUNNY JUNE DAY IN 1966. I was seventeen, schooling my horse over an oxer. She caught her front feet and flipped. I hit the ring's cement wall, split my helmet in two, had a seizure, and broke my nose and collarbone. I healed physically, but I began to associate fear with my greatest love: jumping horses.
Thirty years later, now a practicing clinical psychologist, I was also still a competitive rider. But I never rode to my full ability because, deep down, the memory of my fall hampered my performance.
A colleague suggested that a new therapy might help. I tried it, and in two months, it changed my life. EMDR "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing" was developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro. She hypothesized that the reason the memory of a frightening event is so powerful is that the brain stores it before fully processing it, along with the initial emotions and sensations it triggered. Those emotions are maintained just as when they happened, so similar events can easily trigger them again. The trick, then, is to process that unprocessed anxiety and stress, take away the negative emotional charge, and so help the brain heal.
The technique Dr. Shapiro developed combines talking through the negative events with a psychotherapist certified by the EMDR International Association (see EMDRIA contact information) and rhythmic, bilateral stimulation produced by a machine that looks like a laptop. This stimulation can be visual (a dot moving from side to side across the screen), auditory (a beeping tone that sounds in one ear, then the other), or tactile (a tingling sensation felt alternately in one hand, then the other, through paddles held in both hands). As the client works through the traumatic event, the stimulation helps to dissipate its effects and activates the left and the right brain to work together to build new neuro pathways to healing.
First used to alleviate post-traumatic stress syndrome, such as that experienced by the Oklahoma City bombing victims, EMDR is now being used to help with a variety of problems. We are just beginning to understand the neurobiology of the treatment, which some experts have likened to deep-healing REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. But a decade of research now supports its reliability and efficacy including brain-scan studies demonstrating that the brain actually changes after EMDR treatment.
What happens in an EMDR session? First, the therapist takes a long history, asking you about traumatic experiences and helping you identify the anxiety-arousing event. Next, she helps you establish good coping and self-calming skills. This step might involve strategies such as thinking of a safe place or a calming color and "installing" these images with the help of the bilateral stimulation described above.
Then, following Dr. Shapiro's proto col and all the while applying bilateral stimulation, the therapist asks you to describe the event in detail. She or he guides you carefully through the pro cessing, including the emotional and body feelings you associate with the memory. (Some clients say this experi ence is like riding on a train and observing pictures of your life going by.) After a session, many clients report feel ing "lighter." For trauma victims who say they're feeling "stuck," EMDR helps them become "unstuck."
I needed eight sessions of EMDR to process my trauma and the associated anxiety I felt while jumping. Today, I know I fell and was injured, but my body no longer remembers the pain; events that happened thirty years ago no longer interfere with my enjoyment of riding.
I've seen similar results with my clients. For example, I had one client whose horse had fallen on a trail ride, rolling them both into barbed wire; she was so upset that she stopped riding outdoors altogether. Today, after six EMDR sessions, she's again enjoying beautiful mountain trails near her home.
EMDR can also enhance performance. One woman came to me wanting to feel more relaxed and competent in her riding. We used EMDR to reinforce her memories of good rides and instill positive affirmations. She competed in her first Grand Prix recently - and had a very respectable finish.