EMDRIn a bid to zap her inner demons and reset her brain, Alix Strauss decided to try a radical form of treatment: EMDR therapy. By ALIX STRAUSS
I'm in the Hamptons doing a book signing, when my ex-who I had a horrific breakup with and who I haven't seen in more than two years-appears in front of me. He doesn't want an autograph, and I know he already owns my novel; he is clearly here to see me. But as soon as our eyes meet, he loses his nerve and leaves. Instead of going numb as I usually do in traumatic situations, I feel calm and matter-of-fact-in control. A year ago, I would have been a heartbroken basket case, obsessively reviewing in my head other ways the encounter might have gone.
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When we broke up, I found myself fixating on painful memories of our relationship and unable to move forward with my life. I tried every conventional remedy you can think of: talk therapy (which I'd been doing weekly for three years at that point), endless spewing to friends, allotting crying time each day, burning his photos, and even going on an array of blind dates. Nothing worked. I remained weepy and depressed, stuck in the past.
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Finally, my therapist suggested that I try a form of psychotherapy called EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. A bilateral stimulation therapy designed to unlock negative memories, feelings, and emotions, EMDR is a controversial technique involving lights, sounds, and tapping that purportedly helps the brain process traumatic experiences. This sounded like mumbo jumbo to me but I was desperate. I would have stripped naked and run down Fifth Avenue if you had told me it would help.
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A few weeks later, I found myself sitting on a beige carpet in an Upper East Side office, leaning against a couch, with the lights dimmed. I had headphones on, a Walkman-like device in my lap. In front of me stood a two-and-a-half-foot-long eye scanner on a tiny tripod. Mini green lights blinked and moved rhythmically from left to right, working in tandem with the tapping sound that came through the headphones. Rosemary Masters, my EMDR therapist, is founding director of the Trauma Studies Center of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. A reserved, kind woman who looks like she stepped out of an L.L.Bean catalogue, Rosemary began our session by asking me to recall a specifically distressing memory. I chose the moment when I received a voice mail from my ex's paramour. The woman's voice, with its crisp British accent, sounded merciless: "Your relationship is doomed and dysfunctional because he's been intimate with me behind your back." I visualized the pathetic conversation that my ex and I'd had afterward in my apartment as he lied about the situation, insisting she'd made it all up. As I sat in the office, I once again felt my heart pound, felt the pain and resentment well up inside. Rosemary's voice hung in the air as I tried to answer her questions: What do you see? How would you rate your level of anxiety? What are you feeling?
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I followed the lights. I listened to the tones. I answered her questions. I told her my level was a 4 or 5 out of 10. To my surprise, tears rolled down my cheeks. But as I tapped into raw emotions, I felt oddly calm and clinical-I was very aware that this was therapy, not a meltdown. When she asked how I felt, the words that came out were: It's too much loss. I hurt all the time.
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EMDR was developed by California psychologist Francine Shapiro, who, while walking in a park one day in 1987, noted that eye movements appeared to reduce anxiety and the intensity of disturbing thoughts. During the past two decades, this therapy has become extremely popular among those who suffer from anxiety attacks, physical abuse, and post-traumatic stress. I think of it this way: If talk therapy is a cross-country road trip, then EMDR is a crosstown bus ride. Some refer to it as "shortcut therapy," since positive results can happen within three to eight sessions. Those working on single trauma issues can be helped within three sessions.
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The biggest difference between EMDR and conventional talk therapy is that, during EMDR you don't have to examine the cause of problems in depth-like if you habitually date the wrong people. Instead you focus on allowing your brain to release a specific event that you're fixated on. New York's high-octane pace makes it a logical choice. We all want impressive results in little time. To me, EMDR is like an in-office face-lift for your brain without hospitalization. Today, more than 70,000 clinicians are specially trained and certified in the treatment, and millions of people claim to have been fixed from it.
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"EMDR is about adaptive integration," Rosemary explains. "The lights, tones, and tapping stimulate the information-processing system of the brain in a similar way to REM sleep, where the brain extracts what's important and useful and lets go of the rest." Like other EMDR specialists, she looks for shifts where the patient's feelings of worthlessness or dejection are replaced by positive thoughts. In my case, the mantra I often uttered, "I'll never get over this," was eventually substituted by "I'll move past this."
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After the session, I went home and literally could not keep my eyes open. My brain felt depleted. Eventually I surrendered to the druglike exhaustion and napped-something I never do. I shared this with Rosemary on my next visit. "Some people experience exhaustion," she said. "Some have vivid dreams; others feel relief."
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Not everyone is a suitable candidate for the treatment. For those with an addiction or a physical condition like epilepsy, EMDR could revisit trauma that the brain may not be able to process without additional preparation. And there are those in the medical community who don't buy into EMDR's quick results. "It gives people temporary relief and helps them connect emotionally, but the effect isn't lasting," says Eric Braverman, a clinical assistant professor of integrative medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center's department of neurosurgery. "EMDR reminds me of the days when doctors used to give people cocaine for depression."
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I disagree. For someone like me, who was mentally and emotionally fixated on a single trauma, the effects have been radically and lastingly positive. Cheryl Brinker, who was part of the Red Cross's September 11th Recovery Program team, had a similar experience. After Brinker saw several different specialists for her post-traumatic stress disorder, a therapist suggested EMDR in 2008. "It was like my brain was frozen, and all that would play was this loop of horrific images," she says. After five sessions she felt healed. "My mind had started making new thought patterns, like 'What am I having for dinner?' The old images are still there, but they're not traumatic anymore. They don't prevent me from living my life."
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For me, the biggest shift happened after my fourth EMDR session. As I walked home, a floating, out-of-body sensation washed over me. For the next two days, I was exhausted and napped for several hours each day. And then something happened. The next day, as I stood in the shower, I realized that I didn't hurt as I had before. I can't explain how or why, but it felt as if my brain had been rebalanced. As if a fever had broken.
These days, the memory and pain I associate with my breakup still seem far off. It's an Alice in Wonderland sensation-like I swallowed a magic pill without knowing what it was or how it would affect me. I'm afraid to ask what the ingredients were because I don't want to inspect the potion too closely. I just know I feel better. Fixed. And the past feels far away, where it should stay.
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