How therapy focused on eye movement can help faster than ‘talk therapy’

Illustration by Moy Zhong

Not all therapy is talk therapy. In 1987, Francine Shapiro began developing a new therapy called EMD, or Eye Movement Desensitization, using bilateral eye stimulation to lessen the effects of negative emotions linked to distressing memories. Today, we know it as EMDR, and it’s recently gained traction among those seeking mental health treatment.

Shapiro developed the therapy for PTSD (sometimes called PTS or PTSS), but today the therapy is used more widely. “For the most part, it’s known to be a trauma approach,” says local therapist Shara McGlothan. “But it can help with any type of unsettling emotion or thought that you may have. They talk about trauma ‘little t’ and trauma ‘big T,’ but it can be really anything that’s bringing you discomfort.” 

“Trauma is very subjectively defined,” therapist Melissa Joyce agrees. “When we think about what trauma really is, it’s an event that happens that overwhelms our autonomic nervous system and we don’t feel safe.” 

EMDR invites patients to process information differently than more traditional talk therapies. “In typical talk therapy,” McGlothan says, “processing would mean talking about [the experience], tracking those patterns and helping the client change and manage what comes up for them. In EMDR, there’s not very much talking at all. It’s really just letting the brain go to work as we focus on the particular memory that’s happening at the time.” 

“We’re just taking a train ride through the past,” Joyce says, “but we’re not going to stay.” 

With EMDR exploding into the internet wellness space, both therapists advise caution. “We want society to be educated on what’s happening,” McGlothan says, “but that doesn’t eliminate the need for a therapist and to have that professional support.” 

“A lot of those apps are not for the public per se,” McGlothan adds. “They’re for trained clinicians, so they’re able to do some of this through telehealth.” 

One misconception the internet gets wrong about EMDR: It is definitely not hypnosis. “You’re going to be awake the whole time,” Joyce says. “You’ll be aware of what’s happening. We break it up into small sets of maybe thirty to sixty seconds depending on the individual, and then we’re coming back to the present to talk about what did that person notice, what changed?”

But mindfulness does play a small role, Joyce says. “We will prompt clients to notice what’s happening in their bodies, what they are aware of physically, emotionally, somatically. And sometimes we do grounding during the session because there can be some pretty distressing things that pop up.”

EMDR is rising in popularity, with more people looking toward result-oriented work that can be confined to a few sessions. “It’s not really typical to put a timer on it,” McGlothan cautions, “but results-wise, [EMDR] can be quicker than talk therapy.”

“This is one of the few approaches that clients can ask for by name,” McGlothan says. 

Joyce loves watching the improvements her clients make through EMDR. “In my experience,” she says, “people talk about not necessarily feeling as stuck anymore. It feels like they are capable of making the right choices, of being loved and feeling safe.” 

“There’s a saying from a leading trauma professional: Our issues stay in our tissues, and that is so true,” Joyce says. “Talking about it is great, but I think we need to heal from trauma more fully and to be able to grow from it and flourish. And stop feeling so stuck.”

So, does talk therapy still have a place? Both therapists agree—yes. “Other people might want to do a more in-depth personal discovery, which is where talk therapy really comes in handy,” McGlothan says. And while Joyce has a preference for EMDR, she says, “it is not for everybody, and that’s okay.”

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