Quick Cure for Trauma Memories?

Devastating events can happen in an instant and be over in moments, but their effects can linger for years.

An estimated 13 million Americans are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, haunted by experiences that may have occurred decades ago. But the originator of a controversial new therapy technique says she can free them in a few blinks of an eye.

The treatment, called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), actually involves a complex combination of traditional psychotherapy approaches, but its distinctive central feature is the belief that rapid eye movements during the recollection of a traumatic event can somehow defuse the memories.

Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., the California psychotherapist who developed the technique, knows her claims are bold and admits she can't explain how EMDR works, but tells her critics that the proof is in the patients who have been liberated in a way that years of talk therapy couldn't accomplish.

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is itself a condition that was only fairly recently formally recognized and defined by the mental health community. While most commonly associated with military combat veterans, its victims are just as likely to be women or children who have experienced rape, some other form of violence, accident, or natural disaster.

For each, it's as though the memories themselves are repeatedly assaulting them, just as suddenly and intensely as the original event did. The result is a state of persistent distress in the victim which, according to the National Center for PTSD, can include heightened anxiety and agitation, inability to concentrate, fear and avoidance of reminders of the event, emotional numbness and withdrawal from relationships, and a sense of helplessness regarding the vivid flashbacks, whether they come in nightmares or during waking hours.