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“Helping you gain control over the things you want to change”

Fiona Nicolson

Eye movement therapies, a science-based therapy which really works

Posted on 13 September 2021

I work a lot with trauma, especially that caused by sexual attack or harassment. I know that the effects and impact of trauma including PTSD can be successfully treated and quite quickly. I do it every day. I am trained and professionally qualified in the use of a range of cutting edge therapeutic treatments including EMI (Eye Movement Integration). Eye Movement Integration is a powerful method for treating emotional difficulties and for many clients it provides more rapid relief from emotional distress than conventional psychotherapies. EMI is very similar to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) and they share a common methodology. There are various forms of eye movement therapy. They all work very well, research studies show over 80 per cent of people suffering from trauma following a sexual assault, can be helped in just a few, three or four, sessions.

This month I am going to explain how they work in more detail.

The key is how we process memories

I want to say a bit about how these eye movement techniques work. They are very much based on neuroscience.

Usually, we process difficult events through our normal information processing systems. We dream, we talk it through with loved ones, we daydream, we do internal talk, we reflect, we may write or journal. All this has the same function, it connects the difficult thing with the information and memories we already hold. It is an integration and a learning process and further builds on our brain’s existing neural circuits. In this way difficult events get integrated into our life story, the difficult event is moved into the past, it becomes part of our memory system. It can even build on our resilience, we can say to ourselves ‘I dealt with that, I know how to, so I can deal with this.’

When an event goes over the line from difficult to traumatic, things can go wrong. Our usual processes are not enough to file what has happened and put it away. Instead, the event stays right in the present bit of our systems, that is why flashbacks are so common. The traumatic event is so near the surface that it can be brought right to the surface by a trigger. In sexual trauma, seeing someone who looks like the attacker or even hearing a song that was playing at the time can bring a full-blown re-living of the situation.

There is another nasty twist, knowing that this can happen, the mind and the body goes on full alert, constantly scanning the environment for threats or triggers. This is where the anxiety and hypervigilance come from which can be disabling. Not only is the client unable to process the trauma, but they are also unable to process anything else. A formerly difficult event, which would have been processed in the normal way cannot be dealt with. It is a slippery and terrifying slope that can make normal life difficult and often impossible.

Breaking the memory log jam

The goal of eye movement therapies is to break the log jam. To take the traumatic memory and get the brain to process it and file it, so it behaves like a normal memory. It will still be there and the client initially may well feel unhappy or some sort of low level emotion if they remember the event, but unhappy etc is not traumatised. The client can feel unhappy and still get on with life. The unhappiness will go away and wellbeing will be restored.

When the memory is processed, the nervous system, both brain, and body will be back in equilibrium. Many clients describe this as being ‘no longer scared or highjacked’. I cannot think of a better description.

Looking to a better future: we can build resilience

This means that if bad things happen in the future the response can be more balanced. Of course, a defensive response will often be the first, and the best, response, but it will be much easier to then plan, creatively and calmly a longer-term way to deal with what has happened.

Real results in real time

It is all about how we re-process traumatic things which can happen to us. With targeted specialist treatment such as EMI we can re-process traumatic memories pretty quickly. Progress can happen in real-time, actually while you are in the therapy room. I prove this to clients. I ask them to scale their distress and then do regular checks in the session to prove to them that the level of distress is coming down. When the level of distress is low, at a level where the client feels comfortable we can move on. It gives us the chance to discuss what they can do now with their new feelings.

Trauma and sexual attack

Trauma, especially following a sexual attack can often go along with a feeling of self-loathing, a feeling you are useless and not worth anything. If you think about this it is not surprising, any form of sexual attack means another person has decided to treat you as nothing more than a mechanism for them to realise their desires or wants. Your very humanity, your essence of yourself as a person has been damaged by your attacker. But your attacker does not have to win, you do not have to adopt their view. The events that stemmed from that view, the attack on you, can be processed and dealt with.

As the trauma is processed we can deal with life . . .

The other great thing about this form of therapy is that it has permanent effects. This is obviously good for the clients, and it opens up more space for the therapist to work with anything else that is impacting on the client. People who have lived with PTSD for a long time will have adopted all sorts of behaviours to get through life. Most of these will be bad. I see them all the time, substance abuse is very common. Drugs, both prescription and street drugs are a problem, as is heavy drinking. One less often thought about but just as common is the misuse of food. It is very frequent for people to comfort eat or completely stop eating.

Then there are behaviours for getting around the world. Never going out, or being frightened of meeting anyone new, avoiding the scene of your attack, annoying if it was in a bar, completely life-wrecking if it was at work, are just some examples. As the trauma clears, we can work to rebuild a richer life. Sometimes this will not be going back to what the client did before. I have noticed real outbreaks of creativity are common as we work through the process, and clients come up with ideas about what they want to incorporate into their lives which they would never have thought of before.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is often accompanied by guilt and fear. These can be completely immobilising emotions. As these emotions retreat, a new world opens up. Changes in the real world can be made. Often these will be small at first, perhaps travelling on public transport or going into a bar. But these can be giant leaps for a client who has been paralysed by PTSD.

Once the memories have been processed you can wave goodbye to it . . .

As I have said, many clients will see real results quickly. Here are some of the benefits I see regularly in my PTSD for sexual trauma clinics.

• flashbacks will become less strong and not important
• anxiety and depression will lessen
• suicidal thoughts can be dealt with
• panic attacks can be eliminated
• Hypervigilance, with your nervous system running at one hundred and ten percent all the time, can be overcome.
In short, if you are suffering from PTSD this therapy can put you on the road to recovery.
You can stop being constantly anxious. You can relax. You can stop worrying and start planning. You will have a new feeling of hope, and we can work with that. I think all this can be summed up in one word. You can feel safe again

Rising self-esteem and starting new things

I constantly check on my clients’ self-esteem. Shifting of the trauma opens up the space when the client feels they are worthy of love and respect again. Someone who is worthy of love and respect is worthy and capable of making choices and taking action.

There is another great benefit of short therapy, those three or four sessions needed to deal with the trauma. After that, the client does not have to think about it again. Traditional therapies can last years and this can introduce a situation where every week the client relives the trauma. The trauma becomes even more deeply embedded into their personality, they become not Jane the advertising exec, but Jane who goes to talk about her rape with the nice therapist every week. As a colleague of mine said, “I do not understand this approach, constantly revisiting the rape, wasn’t it bad enough the first time around?”

The advantage of visiting a therapist who uses eye movement therapies but is also interested in the long-term outcomes for the client, once the initial trauma is dealt with, is that visits to the therapist become almost enjoyable. The sessions are a safe space in which the client can explore what is going to happen in a good future.

There is a bright future out there for people suffering from trauma. Eye movement therapies can be the key to unlocking it.

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