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The Amazingly Simple, Inexplicable Therapy That Just Might Work : Is EMDR Psychology's Magic Wand or Just Some Hocus Pocus?

August 07, 1994|Nancy Wartik | Nancy Wartik is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and contributing editor to American Health magazine. Her last piece for this magazine was about in-vitro fertilization

The videotape I'm watching is making me cry. The woman in it, in her 60s and neatly dressed, speaks in a self-possessed manner and without self-pity, despite the nasal-gastric tube that runs from her nose to her stomach. She's talking with Colorado Springs psychologist Robert Tinker, a sympathetic off-screen presence. Found to have oral cancer two years ago, Mary Sarner is a nurse and has no illusions about her prognosis. That's not what's upsetting her at the moment, however.

Seven months ago, when her cancer flared up again, her husband, Charlie, left her, telling her, "I can't watch you die anymore." Sick and despairing, Sarner planned to kill herself. A friend intervened and talked Charlie into returning home. But now Sarner is facing the prospect of new surgery. Terrified that Charlie will leave again, she's feeling desperately hurt and alone.

Tinker speaks up then, describing a new psychotherapeutic procedure--known by the bulky name of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing--he plans to try. It was developed, he says, as a treatment for trauma and may work because it "ties in with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a time when we process the day's emotions." Some events are so painful, "they overwhelm REM's ability to process the emotions." This therapy may be effective, he explains, because it's an intensified form of REM.

He asks Sarner to visualize the moment when Charlie left and to recall the accompanying negative thoughts and feelings ("I'm nothing, I'm no good--pain, lonesomeness, terrible hurt"). Then, holding his fingers about 18 inches from her face, Tinker begins moving them back and forth in windshield-wiper fashion. Sarner's eyes track the movement, as if observing a Ping-Pong game. On the first go-round, which lasts less than a minute, nothing much happens. The second time, Sarner begins to sob. "I don't want to watch anymore," she cries out, as if seeing a vision beyond the moving fingers. Yet she keeps her eyes moving, until Tinker has her close them briefly and breathe deeply.

"What do you get?" he asks.

"I hurt from head to toe," she responds.

Again he has her think of Charlie's desertion, while his hand zigzags back and forth. This time, as she watches, her face changes. "It's gone," she says when Tinker stops. "It's just an old picture now. It's amazing. I don't have to hurt anymore. If Charlie wants to leave, it's his choice." She sits up straighter, more relaxed. "Oh gosh. I can do this, I'm going to be strong," she says. "When I die, I'm going to die with dignity. If Charlie doesn't want to see it, that's OK."

There are more rounds of hand movements. "I want to go deep-sea fishing, start calling my friends. Charlie, I can have fun without you."

I'VE JUST SEEN A DEMONSTRATION, TAPED DURING THE COURSE OF A recent study, of what's probably the most controversial psychotherapy in use today. In 1989, the first articles about an improbable-sounding technique for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appeared in the psychological literature. PTSD, an anxiety disorder with a multitude of mental and physical symptoms, strikes after an ordeal such as rape, combat, child abuse or natural disaster and can permanently scar a psyche. But with little more than a wave of the hand, it seemed, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) could undo trauma's tormenting effects in a remarkably short time, sometimes in a single session.

The procedure, originated by psychologist Francine Shapiro, then a California graduate student, is fairly straightforward. A patient focuses on the traumatic memory, then follows the back-and-forth movement of a therapist's fingers. That may lead to a new, related image, which the patient will focus on during another set of eye movements. Vivid memories often surface and many patients feel as if they're reliving the original, devastating event. As thick and fast as images arise during the course of what's usually a 90-minute session, they're "processed" with the eye movements until a patient's painful feelings are replaced by happier ones.

Word of EMDR rippled quickly through the psychological community. In some Veterans Administration clinics, the procedure reportedly helped turn things around for Vietnam vets who'd once been impossible to help. Psychologists use it to treat survivors of Florida's Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and those who couldn't function well after the Northridge earthquake this year. Proponents say thousands have benefited from EMDR.

"It's like vacuuming, it sucks all the anxiety out and it's done," says a Hughes Aircraft staff engineer who left town after the January quake. Working on her doctoral dissertation at the time, she was afraid to return until, by chance, she hooked up with a therapist who practiced EMDR.

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