How you can erase painful memories just by moving your eyes

Posted on March 11, 2016

How you can erase painful memories just by moving your eyes: An increasingly popular type of therapy can diminish negative memories and help your wellbeing

  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is used for a number of serious conditions, including anxiety and depression
  • It involves moving your eyes from left to right between 20 and 30 times
  • Devotees say it can diminish negative memories and increase wellbeing 

The small room is quiet, warm and functional. Two women are sitting in chairs. One is moving her right hand backwards and forwards in front of the other’s eyes, which follow her hand intently.

It might sound like a budget hypnosis session but this strange eye flicking ritual is an increasingly popular therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) which is used for a number of serious conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and common stress.

Devotees say simply moving your eyes from left to right between 25 and 30 times can diminish negative memories and, therefore, their impact on your wellbeing.

This, done repeatedly with a trained psychologist – up to 40 times in an hour session – can change your life immeasurably for the better, so experts claim.

And there’s a good reason why processing negative memories can improve your mental wellbeing. Most normal memories are processed by the brain, put in context and then fade with time, but the same is not true of bad memories.

‘Memories are processed according to previous experience and assumption and then assimilated,’ explains chartered clinical psychologist and former president of the EMDR Association in UK and Ireland, Dr Robin Logie.

‘We learn from memory: hot items aren’t picked up, certain foods avoided. These are all filed away and, on the whole, memories from long ago are vague.’

But if you have a bad experience, that negative memory is frozen in time.

‘Your brain can’t process it and the memory returns in dreams and flashbacks, often with a physical response such as feeling sick or actual pain.

‘Rather than fading, it stays as vivid as the day on which it occurred. It hasn’t been correctly processed.’

Brain scans have shown that when a traumatic event occurs, there is increased activity in the part of the brain which stores memories associated with sound, touch and smell, but not in the rational frontal lobes where reasoning occurs.

So trauma is stored in the brain as vivid images, sensations and sounds. Once lodged, this memory doesn’t fade and exerts a disproportionate influence on subsequent behaviour.

Everyone has at least one example of unprocessed memories floating in their heads: an ex-partner whose infidelity affected a relationship; an overheard comment which challenged confidence in friendships; or a teacher’s damning assessment.

Francine Shapiro, who founded the therapy, suggests there are approximately ten or 20 unprocessed memories responsible for most of the pain in our lives.

EMDR is based on putting these bad memories in the right place. Those who have tried it, like Hannah Cooper, 38, who works in supply-chain logistics and lives in Leicestershire with her engineer husband, David, cannot speak highly enough of the process.

With a history of anxiety going back to the breakdown of her parents’ marriage when she was 11, Hannah decided last December that she needed help.

Everyone has at least one example of unprocessed memories floating in their heads: an ex-partner whose infidelity affected a relationship; an overheard comment which challenged confidence in friendships; or a teacher’s damning assessment

‘There were little signs that things weren’t right: I was being snappy with my husband, I felt very tired for no reason,’ she says.

Hannah had previously suffered depression and had counselling so she consulted her therapist, clinical psychologist Dr Alexandra Dent. Dr Dent, who had trained in EMDR, suggested she try it. Over the first three sessions, Hannah identified some stuck memories.

‘Rationally, I know it’s not my fault my parents split up. But there were certain vivid memories that really stuck, such as the time, aged 11, I heard them arguing.

‘My mother threw my father out the door and smashed a mug after him. I’d given him that mug for Father’s Day and it said Dad on it.’

Every time she thought about it Hannah felt sick with tension.

During the fourth session with Dr Dent, they began desensitising the memories using eye-flicking. This starts by focusing on key aspects of the memory, following the finger from left to right and at regular intervals asking the client what they are noticing.

‘I didn’t really notice the left to right hand movements,’ says Hannah. ‘I was utterly intent on living through the memory, which was so vivid I could smell my father’s aftershave.’

Afterwards, Hannah recalls feeling a great lightness.

‘Now, I feel positive and have started running again. People have noticed my happiness.’

She says that had she tried to describe this memory before EMDR she would have broken down in tears. ‘It’s still there, but in the right place, not affecting my life.’

How on earth did somebody come up with such a concept?

It was a chance observation. Clinical psychologist Francine Shapiro, an American, was agonising over a distressing personal problem in 1987. She noticed that as she moved her eyes from one side to another, her disturbing thoughts faded without any conscious effort. She tested the theory by deliberately thinking horrible things while moving her eyes. To her amazement, the same thing happened.

EMDR has a body of scientific research behind it that proves it to be effective for the treatment of severe trauma. Not only is it available on the NHS, but training is compulsory for Ministry of Defence mental health personnel on the front line.

Still think it sounds ludicrous? Jane Steare, the mother of Lucie Blackman, who was murdered in Japan 16 years ago, has benefited from the therapy, as has a PTSD sufferer who had been in the same Tube carriage as one of the 7/7 bombers.

The patron of the UK and Ireland EMDR Association is former hostage Terry Waite.

Dr Logie says: ‘When you move your eyes, you’re reducing your emotional reaction to an event and you are more able to evaluate and process it in a detached way. Secondly, the event is reprocessed, and you can think of it in a more rational way.’

So why does it work?

Some believe the eye movements allow you to process memory in the same way as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when you dream but your eyes flick around.

When asleep you can’t decide to focus on one event but when you’re awake and flicking them around you’re more in control.

A second idea is called the ‘working memory’ theory. You can only hold so much in your head at one time. Distracting yourself by moving your eyes helps you work through the trauma without it – metaphorically speaking – hitting you between the eyes.

Dr Logie believes everyone can benefit, revealing, that in training everybody receives EMDR and they all find something unresolved.

There are, as with everything, rogue therapists, he warns. You should ensure you only see one trained to EMDR Europe guidelines – see emdrassociation.org.uk to find your nearest.

In some cases, just one session can help you slot a traumatic memory into your normal pathways, where it stops affecting your life.

Patients say they do think about it but as something from the past that is no longer distressing. It becomes rationalised.

It seems EMDR may also help with more common problems such as eating disorders.

Physiologically, it fits neatly into a science buzz word: neuroplasticity, which refers to the fact that we can retrain the brain.

In EMDR, patients redirect their own neural pathways to store memories correctly.

For years resolving the pain of bad memories was the stuff of sci-fi, but now, in the blink of an eye, it seems it’s finally possible.

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