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

Fiona Nicolson

The Survivors’ Guide to treatments and techniques: Eye Movement Integration

Posted on 05 August 2018

One of the many things I really love about my work is how engaged my clients become in the work that we do. So many of you are very interested in the recent development of new techniques and tools to help with mental distress. There have been leaps and bounds in how we understand the workings of the brain which are offering great hope. In my cognitive hypnotherapy clinics in Harley Street and Henley on Thames, I work extensively with people who are experiencing post-traumatic stress (PTSD) following a sexual attack or sexual harassment. The good news is that there is real innovation in treatments here, treatments with a good evidence-base and which work in a relatively short space of time.

Over the next year, I am going to be describing some of these in detail here. I will also be talking about them in more detail in my forthcoming book, The Survivors’ Guide to Sexual Harassment and Assault: how to recover and rebuild your life. I hope you find it both interesting and useful.

The theory of eye movement therapy

The idea that eye movements and memory are connected and can be useful in therapy started with a woman called Dr Francine Shapiro. She developed a system in the 1980s called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, usually shortened to EMDR. Her breakthrough was the finding that by moving the eyes in certain ways it was possible to reduce the emotional power of negative thoughts. The reasons for this are still not clearly known, but it does seem that the nerves behind our eyes are closely related to the memory centres in our brains, and if we can work with these nerves we can change how those memory centres work.

Dr Shapiro built on her discovery to develop a sophisticated technique in which very specific targeted eye movements could be used to address specific mental issues, especially those related to trauma.

Eye movement techniques now have a proven record for treating trauma. They are even recommended by veterans’ associations for dealing with battle stress.

But we do not have to be in a battle to suffer trauma. Sexual attack, abuse or harassment can also cause mental trauma and these techniques have been proven to be very useful in clearing these traumas.

What is mental trauma?

A client who recently came to see me at my hypnotherapy for sexual trauma clinic in Harley Street was worried as to whether she should be there at all. She wanted to know what exactly mental trauma is and how she would know if that was what she was experiencing. She asked me a very good question: “You say you help with trauma. Are you sure I have trauma?” So, what distinguishes trauma from just feeling bad about something bad which has happened to you?

Essentially, when we have experienced something frightening and threatening we can end up storing the memory in an unusual way. Rather than the memory going into the past, it stays in the immediate memory and this is not helpful.

If this happens it can mean that the memory becomes intrusive, the phenomenon we describe a flashback. The key characteristic of flashbacks is how vivid they are, people often describe the experience as reliving the trauma.

Sometimes this is what we could describe as a classic flashback. This can often seem like a film running in your head, but somehow more real. Or the memories can be more diffuse. It can be a feeling, or just one sense. Whatever the particular form this takes, it can set off the feelings, emotions and thoughts you had when the initial events happened. When you remember, it is as if it has just happened or even is still happening, rather than something in the past.

And of course, putting something in the past gives a sense of distance and that is a psychological protection in itself. A good way of explaining it is to compare a mental trauma with a physical injury. Imagine you get a piece a glass stuck in your hand, if it is not dealt with it will fester and affect your whole hand and then the rest of your body. The same is true with a memory, if it is not processed properly it sticks around, festering and causing damage.

Eye movement therapies help you to process these ‘stuck’ memories so they enter your normal memory system. You can still remember, but the remembering is not so intense, you have the comfort of distance and in most cases it is almost becomes as if you cannot be bothered to remember it or think about it at all.

Eye movement integration

The system I use is called Eye Movement Integration. It is based on Frances Shapiro’s insights, but is often quicker and simpler. It is also less standardised. I strongly believe in tailoring my sessions to the needs of each individual client. Every one of us is different, and will experience our trauma differently. I always spend time getting to know what is particular to each of my clients: how you hold your memories and how these are affecting you. It is this personalised approach which makes my therapy so effective.

Sexual trauma can be particularly hurtful to our wellbeing. Such an ‘injury’ which is so close to the core of our being, can be especially serious and damaging. Eye Movement Techniques are an important part of what we will do together if you come to see me to overcome sexual trauma.

It is all about fitting together everything which makes you ‘the unique you’. You need a supportive context and a therapist who recognises your belief system and your life experience. This is central to success. I will always begin by making sure you feel safe or however you need to feel in order to progress.

The eye movement part comes in when you are ready to deal with those traumatic memories. We can work with that memory in a way which makes you feel safe. I do not want to make you relive the things which you have come to me to get over. I am highly experienced in making sure you feel safe and confident to work with bad things in your past.

What will happen with Eye Movement Integration

The aim is to help you reprocess that memory and I do this by getting you to make very precise and planned movements of your eyes. The way I do this is by asking you to keep your head still and start to follow my finger with your eyes. I move my finger (and therefore your eyes follow) in a way which means your brain begins to process the memory we are working on differently. This does not take very long to have an effect. Very quickly, you will find that the bad memory becomes less powerful, less strong and has a less destructive effect on your life.

You will not forget what happened, but you will find that when you recall it the emotions and feelings are not as strong. Some people say how they ‘see’ the memory is different. They may now see it at a distance, or in monochrome rather than colour. Others notice that when they recall the memory it does not have the emotional charge. It is there but somehow it matters less. This is all down to the wonderful creative power of our minds. With the right tools we are able to change how we recall our memories in a way which is more acceptable to us.

That might sound like a lot to do in one session, but I pace the progress to the speed and needs of the client. It can sometimes take several sessions, and a mix of techniques to finally clear the trauma and also for some clients how they feels about themselves because of the trauma. However, you will see a difference in one session and you will know you are on a path to recovery.

I always take my steer from you, my client. We might not start with the traumatic event but with how you are responding now. If, for example, you feel panicked in a certain situation we can work with that. Each step forward is a victory and the more you feel in control, the nearer you are coming to overcoming the trauma.

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