Using eye movement to treat stress and other disorders


Over the years, there’s been no shortage of interesting alternatives to typical talk-based psychotherapy. Laughter therapy, sound therapy, horticultural therapy and even wilderness therapy have become popular ways to deal with psychological distress, helping with everything from general anxiety and depression to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These aren’t the only fascinating alternatives, though.

Another form of therapy is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which can be an effective method for treating PTSD.

EMDR helps victims of trauma re-process and learn to cope with difficult events by rapidly moving their eyes back and forth, following the movement of a therapist’s finger while concentrating on a distressing memory.

The origins of EMDR
EMDR began practically by accident in 1987, when California psychologist Francine Shapiro was taking a walk in the woods, reports Scientific American.

During her stroll, Shapiro said she was anxious. She soon realized, though, that her anxiety had subsided once she began moving her eyes back and forth while at the same time closely observing and concentrating on her surroundings. Once she discovered that the rapid movement of her eyes brought her to a more relaxed state, she decided to see if rapid eye movement might reduce stress and anxiety in her clients. After finding that the procedure was able to help ease distress in her clients, Shapiro published a study in 1989 on her research, dubbing the practice EMDR.

Since then, EMDR has been used as a treatment for PTSD and various other conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, sexual dysfunction, stress and other anxiety disorders.

EMDR trainer Roger Solomon is a clinical psychologist whose specialty is trauma and grief. He is the police psychologist for the South Carolina Department of Public Safety and a consultant to the trauma programs of the U.S. Senate and several state and federal law enforcement agencies.

“EMDR therapy is guided by the Adaptive Information Processing model,” says Solomon. “This model posits that present problems are the result of past distressing memories that have become ‘frozen’ or stuck in the brain (including the images, thoughts and beliefs, feelings and sensations), thus becoming maladaptively stored in the brain. When there is a reminder (either external or internal), this maladaptively stored information gets triggered and is experienced in the present.”

Based on that premise, EMDR seeks to help people effectively adapt to their lives once trauma has occurred. EMDR gives those who suffer from trauma the possibility of reprocessing traumatic memories, so that the memories are able to become “unstuck” and processed in a way that the traumatized person is able to understand.

EMDR allows for what Solomon sees as the “the transmutation of the perpetual re-experiencing of distressing events with a learning experience that becomes a source of resilience.”

All this takes place by using a simple technique such as moving one’s eyes back and forth, which “stimulates the information processing mechanisms of the brain,” says Solomon. Once the information processing mechanism of the brain is stimulated by following the movements of the therapist’s fingers with the eyes, the traumatized person is able to reprocess the memories that cause distress; it gives them the ability to effectively adapt, learn and understand that he or she has successfully made it through the trauma.


To illustrate, Solomon uses the experience of a war veteran. “A war veteran experiencing a near-death experience in battle may have concluded ‘I am going to die,’ which becomes maladaptively stored in the brain, unable to process,” Solomon says. “When there is a present trigger, the distressing memory including the images, thoughts and beliefs and sensations associated with the event arise and are experienced as nightmares, flashbacks, and other symptoms of PTSD.”

Once the veteran is able to properly reprocess the information after undergoing EMDR, “the veteran can think of the battle event and know, at a felt body level, that ‘I survived, it’s over,’” says Solomon.

Theories behind the inner workings of reprocessing
Psychologists have come up with a number of theories as to how memory reprocessing during EMDR works — and more research is needed to determine the exact process — but here are a few that might explain exactly what’s happening in the brain during EMDR.

The working memory theory: Working memory is our short-term memory. It’s the part of our memory that allows us to store information that we need to reason, learn and comprehend.

“Studies looking at the specific effects of eye movements used in EMDR therapy show a significant reduction of memory vividness and associated emotion” says Solomon. “The working memory theory posits that the working memory system has a very limited capacity. When it is taxed by the competing tasks of holding a memory in mind while moving the eyes, there is a degradation of performance. This results in the distressing memory losing its quality and power.”

It’s almost as if the memory is unable to “keep up” with the reprocessing that occurs while the traumatized person’s eyes are moving back and forth — thus making the memory lose its grip over the person.

REM sleep theory: Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) is the stage of sleep in which we dream, and process and store memories.

Solomon explains that it’s “been hypothesized that eye movements stimulate the same neurological processes that take place during REM/dream sleep, which is important in processing and consolidating information.”

It’s possible the EMDR helps a person process a traumatic memory, in much the same way dreaming allows us to process the events of our daily lives while we sleep.

Memory reconsolidation theory: Memory reconsolidation is a process used by therapists to reorder and recode memories once a traumatic memory has been unlocked or accessed.

“Accessing a memory, and updating it with new contradictory information, enables the potential for the original memory to be transformed and reconsolidated, i.e., stored in altered form,” Solomon explains. “This differs from other trauma-focused therapies (e.g. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) where the underlying mechanism is hypothesized to be habituation and extinction, which are thought to create a new memory, while leaving the original one intact.”

In this instance, the traumatic memory changes and transforms; it doesn’t disappear completely. Here, there aren’t two separate memories — one being the traumatic memory and the other being a memory which is of a peaceful nature. You have one memory which has transformed from trauma into a state of acceptance. This might explain the transmutation aspect of EMDR.

Parasympathetic nervous system theory: The parasympathetic nervous system is the part of our nervous system that helps us calm down and relax. It slows the heart, dilates blood vessels, relaxes the muscles in the gastrointestinal tract, increases digestive juices and decreases pupil size.

As far the relation between the parasympathetic nervous system and EMDR, Solomon says it’s possible that the “eye movements elicit an orienting response which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and lowers arousal.” Simply put, rapid eye movement and EMDR seem to be relaxing. “This theory has support from research showing that eye movement lowers arousal for distressing memories,” says Solomon.

What makes EMDR different

EMDR is based more on how a person reprocesses memories, rather than the strict plan of a therapist.

“The therapist facilitates movement with attuned bilateral stimulation and ‘stays out of the way’ as the distressing memory is shifting in an adaptive direction,” says Solomon. “Clients are able to find their own individualized and creative solutions and perspectives, in ways the clinician may never have thought of.”

A person undergoing EMDR doesn’t have to make themselves as vulnerable as they might during other forms of therapy. Sometimes not showing complete vulnerability makes things less taxing when undergoing treatment.

“The client does not have to describe the memory in detail. Not having to disclose shameful or humiliating moments may make it easier for some clients to engage in the therapeutic process,” Solomon explains.

The fact that EMDR is not a talk-based therapy is unique in that that, “EMDR goes to places where words don’t go and enables the processing of implicit, painful memories and their associated emotions and body sensations that talking alone does not seem to reach,” says Solomon.

EMDR success
When asked about a particular case in which EMDR helped a client overcome trauma, Solomon reflected on his experience with a police officer involved in the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting:

“A police officer who was one of the first on-scene was very distressed by the images of children killed. For the next two years, he had nightmares and flashbacks, and found it difficult to be around children. He started the EMDR processing with an initial image of a dead child and an associated belief of ‘I’m helpless.’ With processing he realized he did the best he could at the situation. Next he remembered that many police officers from many different agencies started arriving. He realized that these policemen were off duty and coming on their own time to help out. When asked his thoughts/feelings about the incident, he said “UNITY,” and no longer felt distress. This session humbles me as to how the mind can find an adaptive way to deal with a horrible tragedy and I am grateful for EMDR therapy’s ability to help people.”

Meet the Man Trying to Use Ayahuasca to Treat PTSD

Deep in the Amazon rainforest, a group of veterans chokes down a gritty, gut-wrenching shot of liquid absolution. They try to drink away their severe mental disturbances, but not the way you drink away your ex-girlfriend with a bottle of whiskey. They’re looking for a cure. Their leader: 27-year-old retired infantryman Ryan LeCompte. Their goal: to hallucinate away their terrible memories.

From a few fringe psychiatrists to veterans like LeCompte, there is a budding belief that extreme hallucination can save our brains from themselves. Several organizations, including the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), and adventurous doctors around the world test out psychedelics such as MDMA, psilocybin and ayahuasca for possible medical uses.

Ayahuasca is a devilish brew. It’s made of vines and roots found in the Amazon; drinking it equals a heavy psychedelic experience and profuse vomiting. “As the shapes and colors continued to move about, they sometimes converged to create the face of a woman, who of course I immediately labeled as Aya,” says an ayahuasca user on the underground drug website Erowid. Aya is known as the spirit or soul of the ayahuasca world. LeCompte described having kaleidoscope vision during his ayahuasca trip, and he even began to dance and went to look at leaves and other pieces of the nature around him at points.

Ryan LeCompte is a scruffy former Marine who, today, is studying at the eccentric Naropa University in Boulder. The school was founded by Tibetan Buddhist teacher and Oxford University scholar Chögyam Trungpa and includes schools such as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. The beat poets used to flock to there. It’s a Buddhist-inspired school infamous for attracting people who are looking for an alternative education in an attractive location.

For his part, LeCompte didn’t ever face a PTSD diagnosis during his time in service. But he’s lucky, because many of his peers did. What he did experience still shook him. In 2008, while stationed in 8th and I Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., LeCompte walked into the room of a good friend in his barracks one morning to find Sgt. Jorge Leon-Alcivar dead—a suicide. He was not the only Marine LeCompte encountered who would take his own life. At least 22 veterans kill themselves every day. Leon-Alcivar’s death was the final straw, and three years later LeCompte retired from the Marines to start fighting PTSD. He received his End of Active Service honorable discharge after four years in the Marines and didn’t look back.

LeCompte began traveling to the VA hospital in Birmingham, Alabama, where he was living, to learn what was ailing disturbed veterans and soldiers. He hung around in waiting rooms, cautiously approaching the soldiers, wheedling their stories out. But it didn’t take much persuasion; the men were “so beat,” he recalls, that they opened up to him instantly. This took course over several years, during his free time, while he did contract work building helicopters.

Soon, LeCompte had amassed the information from about 100 cases in Birmingham; Veterans spilled almost everything to him: their meds, their dosages, their choice of therapy. It all added up. Over and over again, he discovered his peers were taking the same types of medicines such Zoloft and Paxil, in the same dosages, 50 to 200mg of Zoloft a day or 20 to 60mg of Paxil a day were common, and with the same form of EMDR therapy. EMDR is a somatic therapy that follows eye movements and dream states.

LeCompte didn’t see anything wrong with the therapy. How about the drugs? Yeah, it’s probably the drugs. LeCompte’s complaints ring of an old story these days in American psychiatry: we’re too drugged up, we’re overdosed and overdiagnosed. It’s a complaint plenty of professionals agree with, but only a handful of psychiatrists are taking alternate routes. “There are some veterans who actually do respond to those meds, but it’s rare,” Dr. Sue Sisley, an expert on PTSD in veterans who has studied treating the illness with marijuana, told ATTN:. “The vets who respond to the standard FDA approved meds like Zoloft or Paxil is probably less than 10 percent. The rest come in looking like zombies.”

LeCompte had tried almost all the drugs they were offering, from “highly addictive anxiolytics like Klonopin, and … Prozac as an anti-depressant and Ambien for a sleep aid,” he said. “These different drugs sort of mixed together in a cocktail just as a recipe for disaster,” he said. He never tried to contact U.S. Veteran’s Affairs to inform them of these problems, because he didn’t think they would do anything about it. VA psychiatrists like Dr. Basimah Khulusi of Missouri have been fired for simply refusing to increase medication dosages that they didn’t think their patients needed shows the kind of system LeCompte was dealing with.

LeCompte looked into how these drugs work and found they’re just mind blockers, they’re not helping you deal with your problems. “Medications do not entirely eliminate symptoms but provide a symptom reduction and are sometimes more effective when used in conjunction with an ongoing program of trauma specific psychotherapy,” according to the VA website.

LeCompte looked at research from people like Julie D. Megler, watched videos of the academic conferences focusing on psychedelics called Psychedemia from Penn State and went on websites like Erowid to look at ayahuasca experiences people had posted to the site. What did he learn? “Something like ayahuasca or MDMA is used to bridge severed connections in the brain that trauma plays a big part in creating,” he said.

“Ayahuasca opens the limbic pathways of the brain to affect the emotional core of the trauma in a way similar to affective psychotherapy for trauma, and also impacts higher cortical areas … to allow the patient to assign a new context to their trauma,” wrote brain experts J. L. Nielson and J. D. Megler, in the book The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca.

Soon, LeCompte started having conversations with veterans and began informing people of the possible benefits of ayahuasca, wondering if anyone else was daring enough to start considering the idea of drinking a shot of psychedelics for their PTSD. LeCompte had never tried ayahuasca, but he was willing to try anything to help his comrades. Eventually he heard of an ayahuasca retreat, the Phoenix Ayahuasca retreat in Peru, where he could test out his medicine.

It took him six months to do what any sane person would do before planning a group outing to South America to hallucinate in a forest together… he started a nonprofit. Its name? The Veterans for Entheogenic Therapy. Other vets started to find him; some were suicidal, exhausted by the daily challenge of deciding whether or not they wanted to be alive. He didn’t know them, but he felt he intimately understood – or at least sympathized with – their minds. He rounded up a trip: five other vets, and him. MAPS helped pay for two of the trips for veterans who couldn’t afford it, and the rest paid for themselves.

The prep was strangely regimented: LeCompte had to ensure the veterans were off their medication for a month leading up to the trip; anti-depressants plus ayahuasca equal a lethal mix. That task amounted to phone therapy and keeping a close eye on everyone: He called the guys every day, even their friends and family, to make sure the men had quit their pills, he said. But he made it work. The families may have thought the idea was strange, but LeCompte says none of them tried to stop their family members because of their knowledge that the drugs weren’t helping treat the PTSD symptoms, and they just wanted to help their family.

The veterans flew into Iquitos, Peru, from Lima – from Iquitos, they sat in a van all the way to the Amazon, winding past motorbikes and rickshaws “on back roads in the middle of bum fuck,” LeCompte says.

Then their lives collided and things got weird.

They were stationed for 10 days at Phoenix Ayahuasca. The camp was little more than a set of huts in the jungle, made from wood and leaves. They would drink the ayahuasca on ceremony nights and be led through their experience by the shaman, and they would stay in their personal huts on days off to reflect on their experiences alone.

LeCompte said the ayahuasca drink “tastes like shit.” The shaman leading the experience dressed in all white scrub-like clothes, like a nurse lost in the jungle. After you drink the brew, the shaman’s job is simply to observe. He diagnoses: Is anyone losing it? Some people have been known to begin convulsing. Is this the moment they need to hear a song that will send them burrowing into a different dimension? “I don’t know how he does it. It’s beyond my rational mind,” LeCompte said. “It” amounts to singing, blowing smoke on trippers’ faces and using instruments like a rattler to change their state of mind.

For his part, LeCompte only wanted two out of the four drink ceremonies, since they were so powerful. It certainly wasn’t about the PTSD for LeCompte; he was trying to get past his experiences of fallen friends and broken relationships. He says just returning home to family and friends from military service or an ayahuasca trip is a difficult experience of its own. “You’re a changed person and there’s no doubting or denying that.”

“Most people get a cut, and they put a bandaid on it,” he said. “These people have had these wounds for so long that they’ve become infected. The infection can’t be fought off with a bandaid.” LeCompte sees ayahuasca as an antibiotic, not a bandaid.

LeCompte is now planning to do an official study to look at how ayahuasca could treat PTSD, which will serve as his thesis for Naropa University. It is being sponsored by MAPS, and it will focus on 12 veterans with treatment resistant PTSD who will try using ayahuasca to treat it. The plan is to conduct the study over 10 days in early 2016. LeCompte is currently running an Indiegogo campaign to fund research and education around the medicinal use of ayahuasca.