Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

Quick Cure for Trauma Memories?

        Health | Mental Disorders

A Real Breakthrough?

EMDR boosters say it doesn't really matter how it works, but that it does. The technique has been used on thousands of patients, from Vietnam War veterans to disaster victims, including survivors of earthquakes in Mexico and Turkey, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine High School shootings, and families of TWA flight 800 passengers. Many adult and child victims of rape, molestation, assault, and car and plane crashes have also been treated with EMDR.

Fewer than two dozen studies of EMDR's effectiveness have been done, yielding mixed results. Some show a majority of patients treated with EMDR experience a significant, lasting reduction in PTSD symptoms compared to patients who receive no treatment. But EMDR-treated patients rarely seem to fare much better when compared with patients who receive other kinds of therapy, leading Shapiro's many critics to say all she's done is to add sleight of hand to an amalgam of old therapies. In 1997, clinical psychologists Gerald Rosen and Jeffrey Lohr wrote, "What appears to have happened is that Shapiro took existing elements from cognitive-behavior therapies, added the unnecessary ingredient of finger waving, and then took the new technique on the road before science could catch up."

Shapiro is the first to acknowledge that her eight-step EMDR method incorporates elements from several existing therapies in addition to the unique eye-movement stimulation technique. "But all we have to do," she says in response to detractors, "is keep allowing the research to come out, which keeps showing that EMDR works. And the idea is healing people, it's not having a theoretical argument." Patients who feel better after EMDR agree.

Laurie Sprinzen was napping on a Long Island Railroad commuter train one evening in December 1993, when she awoke to the sound of gunshots. A man named Colin Ferguson had opened fire, killing six passengers before being overpowered by others. Sprinzen recalls "pandemonium," and remembers standing on the station platform later, "looking around, and still not really knowing what was going on, and seeing somebody's head against the side of the train, and there was blood visible." In the days that followed, Sprinzen says she "Freaked out. I wouldn't even drive to the train station. I was really afraid, because every time I closed my eyes, I saw that head against the window."

Sprinzen sought help from a therapist who had treated her for another problem years earlier, and this time he offered to try EMDR. After just three sessions, she says, her fears were gone. "I really don't know [how it works]," she told She TV, "but what I think it does is you're concentrating on one level, whether it be following a hand or the tapping, cause you get into the rhythm of that hand going back and forth, that it's almost like you zone out of what you were thinking about, for even that 10 seconds with the fingers going back and forth. And then when you get back into the question, it's not as imperative anymore. It changes your focus. You don't have to walk around being scared about a thing. I mean, I could not get on a train that I had been doing for 15 years, so, you know, it worked for me."