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Is EMDR Therapy Legit?

Prince Harry’s recent confession about the use of EMDR therapy has spawned a rush of interest in this therapy as well as many questions about its roots and whether or not it's suitable for Christians.

During his appearance on his new Apple TV+ docuseries on mental health with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry said that he uses a therapy known as Eye Movement Desenitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help him deal with certain traumatic memories in his life. Is this therapy New Age, and can Catholics use it?

EMDR is not New Age and Christians can feel free to use it. Although there is some controversy surrounding this therapy, these disputes have nothing to do with New Age or occult beliefs, but with the way the therapy actually works.

For those who have never heard of it, EMDR is a relatively new form of psychotherapy which is used to treat PTSD and other anxiety disorders. It was discovered in 1987 by a psychology graduate student named Francine Shapiro who noticed that upsetting thoughts faded when she moved her eyes rapidly from side to side. She began to study this effect scientifically and within two years, published a controlled study which described dramatic single-session cures for 22 patients with PTSD. The same results were duplicated in a three-year follow-up.

A typical session lasts up to 90 minutes and consists of the EMDR therapist asking the patient to recall a disturbing event. At the same time, the patient is asked to follow the therapist's hand motions with his or her eyes. Gradually, the therapist will guide the patient into thinking more pleasant thoughts with some practitioners using some kind of alternative to the hand motion, such as tapping their toe or playing musical tones, which is known as bilateral stimulation. After the session, the therapist will ask the patient to rate their level of distress with the hope that the disturbing thoughts will have become less disabling.

Most of the controversy surrounding EMDR is not whether it works, but how it works. As Wendy Byrd, professional counselor and president of the board of directors at the EMDR International Association, explains in this interview, ongoing study is finding that even though our brains and bodies have a built-in mechanism for processing information, trauma can cause that mechanism to become overwhelmed. Consequently, when new information comes in that feels similar to that adverse experience, for example, getting into a blue car after having had a bad accident in a blue car, the brain stores it in the same place as the original trauma. These triggers can result in making things as normal as a blue car feel dangerous.

"It's the blue car driving down the road, or it's the dog barking, or your spouse's face in that one contorted way, and all of a sudden, you're upset, you're triggered and overwhelmed," Byrd explained.

In a typical EMDR session the clinician asks questions to bring up the various components of a memory and the sensory information associated with it such as sights and sounds and physical sensations associated with that memory. The bilateral stimulation of eye movement or tapping can calm down a person’s physiology.

"It will make something that feels upsetting, less upsetting. It helps the brain make images that are very vivid, less vivid,” Byrd said.

Another part of the reprocessing is to introduce positive things into the recall by asking, "What do you want to think now about that experience?"

"EMDR allows the brain to heal from experiences that were traumatic or adverse or overwhelming by allowing the brain to process that information and to store it in a way where the brain now knows, 'I'm in a different circumstance, that's not happening to me anymore,'" Byrd said.

In the docuseries, Harry uses tapping as his stimuli. Byrd said while eye movements are the most researched, other stimuli are proven to be effective.

"It really becomes the client's preference," she said. "Some people can't really tolerate eye movements for different reasons, or they may have something that's going on where we choose a different stimulation."

However, it’s important to note that the kind of tapping used in EMDR therapy is not the same as the tapping associated with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is often referred to as “tapping”. EFT employs tapping on particular meridian points which is based on the pantheistic belief in a universal life force energy.

EMDR has been subjected to a great deal of clinical study with good results. For example, a systematic review of the literature on EMDR, which was conducted by researchers and published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, found that “EMDR therapy could be a useful psychotherapy to treat trauma-associated symptoms in patients with comorbid psychiatric disorders.” Preliminary evidence also found that EMDR therapy could be useful for improving psychotic symptoms and as an add-on treatment in chronic pain conditions.”

According to WebMD, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted the effectiveness of EMDR for treating symptoms of acute and chronic PTSD. The APA particularly recommends it for persons who have difficulty talking about the traumatic events they have experienced.

However, APA guidelines do note that more research is needed to determine if improvements related to EMDR can be sustained. It's also important to note that even supporters agree that it is not yet known exactly how EMDR works. At this point, it is only a theory.

Critics of EMDR point to the small sample sizes used in testing, and its overall effectiveness is still being debated in the scientific community - which is a good thing! When it comes to an individual's health, the application of disinterested scientific study - by the best minds in the world - is the ONLY way to determine what is - and is not - a safe practice. User testimonials are no substitute for this kind of scrutiny and Shapiro is to be applauded for subjecting her discovery to authentic scientific review - regardless of what the outcome might be.

Thus far, there are no known side effects of EMDR and it is considered to be a safe therapy. This website offers a thorough FAQ on EMDR, including questions to ask to determine if a practitioner is qualified to use this therapy.

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