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EMDR: Fingering trauma into submission

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Felt a bit like this.

Francine Shapiro is a psychologist who formulated Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing in the early ’90s when she discovered that rapid eye movements quelled her own anxiety.

EMDR employs double-pronged stimulation of the brain. It occupies the individual with eye movement and tactile stimulation – like being tapped on the knee – while they recall a traumatic event, and then encourages visualisation of safe places. The client can venture off into the recesses of their mind to explore the trauma, then duck back into the safety of their therapist-constructed hidey-hole whenever the going gets tough.

You know: legs blown off by landmines / secluded beach with Nanny and Binky; legs blown off by landmines / secluded beach with Nanny and Binky. Tap tap tap. Eventually the trauma is defused like a bomb.

It’s garnered something of a new age reputation, on account of it being a quick fix and, as with NLP and EFT, it’s not necessarily carried out by anybody with any recognisable qualifications. However, it also utilises cognitive and psychodynamic psychology – hopefully.

I give it a whirl.

1) The questionnaire

The therapist, out in Melbourne’s suburbs, asks me a series of questions as paranoid and sinister as any ’70s conspiracy thriller.

Some people find they are not sure if they have done something or if they just dreamed doing it. How often does this happen to you?

Some people are on a bus or train and realise they can’t remember a section of their journey. How often does this happen to you?

2) Thinking of a safe place

With the therapist’s urging, I think of a beach I’d enjoyed as a youngster.

“How are you feeling?” she asks.

“Like I’ve imagined a safe place and now you’re going to ruin it.” But creepier.

She bids me describe the beach. “That’s an English beach,” she says, aghast at my depiction of the majestic shingles and grey waters of the east coast of Suffolk. “Why don’t you choose the white beaches of Australia, so the little girl inside you can feel the warmth of the sun on her back?”

I think she’s picturing the little girl inside me growing up in a Dickensian workhouse, malnutritioned and failing to thrive without sunlight, but I humour her and switch to the southern coast of New South Wales.

3) Finger tracking and whale music.

My therapist jerks her finger from right to left in sets of 12 strokes, asking me to track its path. The idea is that the eye movements unlock one’s “information processing system” by flitting between the hemispheres of your brain. At the end of each set I’m asked how I feel.

“Increasingly nauseous,” I admit, although it’s the therapist’s unflinching, slightly pop-eyed stare that’s bringing on the quease. Appeased, she works through another set.

“Stay with the clenching feeling,” she says, “and push my fingers with your eyes.”

She stops. “What score would you give me out of 10?”

I look at her, confused. She wants me to rate her performance now? Me, a rank amateur!

“For what?”

“For the sickness. With 10 being as bad as anyone could ever feel.”

“About a three, I suppose.”

“Okay, stay with it – we’re going again.”

4) Exploring an incident

Just when I think I’m going to run bellowing from the room if I have to sit through any more bug-eyed finger-jerking, a voice in my head pipes up: “She wants you to look over there.

“What’s happening now?”

“Nothing,” I lie. I’m feeling rising panic.

I notice that she is not trailing her hand smoothly from right to left; she’s flicking her finger to my left on each set, like an instruction… and I ‘m getting a feeling of dread each time.

My eyes linger longer on the left with each sweep and some images begin to flood my brain.

“Find the spot and look at it,” she yelps, grabbing a pointer and wielding it forth. “Just stay focused on it and then see what comes out next.”

Miraculously, I recount a childhood event I’d previously not been able to remember; not realising till the next day that I’ve cast the main character in the exact same outfit they wear in a photograph I have of them. Is this how past life regression therapy works, when people recount tales of medieval derring do? Can it be put down to wanting to perform well for the therapist’s approval; like being eager to please a parent?

5) The counselling bit

“When people don’t have coping skills to deal with a situation, the brain puts it aside in a box,” the therapist explains, “but it will keep bobbing up. Nature will eventually help you deal with it… but nature’s way takes too long.”

We indulge some stomach-churning talking to my younger self while the therapist leans cavalierly into my comfort zone and taps my knees like a demented aunt.

EMDR, she says, works by sensory overload: the following of the finger while listening to whale music and focusing on two entirely different scenarios and feelings. “By bonding them, the good one disarms the bad. Now you have a tool.”

“Cheque or savings?” she says, breaking my trance.

Here’s an interesting interview with Shapiro.

Health professionals-ish.

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