In forensic cases, trauma is one of the most common problem areas that a therapist may treat. Trauma is the experience of severe psychological distress following any terrible or life-threatening event. Sufferers may develop emotional disturbances such as extreme anxiety, anger, sadness, survivor’s guilt, or PTSD (psychiatric disorder after trauma). They may also experience ongoing problems with sleep or physical pain, encounter turbulence in their personal and professional relationships, and feel a diminished sense of self-worth due to an overwhelming amount of stress.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an eight-phase treatment program that helps people heal from trauma or other distressing life experiences. Eye movements or other stimulation are used during one part of the treatment. After clinicians have determined which traumatic memory to target first, they ask the client to hold the memory in their mind while they use their eyes to track the therapist’s hand as it moves back and forth across the client’s field of vision.
After undergoing EMDR, some clients report a reduction in traumatic memories and PTSD symptoms. One theory for why EMDR works is that trauma causes a disruption in normal information processing. This results in unprocessed information from the trauma—negative thoughts and feelings—that are held in memory networks. Consequently, EMDR allows the client to access and reprocess negative memories—leading to decreased psychological arousal (fear) associated with the memory, as well as a reduction in symptoms related to the trauma (flashbacks, avoidance, etc.)
Moreover, EMDR studies have produced promising results in treating trauma. In one study, 84%-90% of clients who receive EMDR therapy no longer have PTSD after three 90-minute sessions. In another study, it was found that 100% of single trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims were no longer diagnosed with PTSD after six 50-minute sessions.
Although there are positive findings, EMDR is not necessarily a cure-all for all trauma patients. Because EMDR treatment focuses on re-exposure to traumatic memories, some clients may have a temporary increase in distress, which can sometimes be severe for very sensitive clients, or for those who have experienced particularly severe traumas. Therefore, as a result of the potential adverse effects, some EMDR clients may have a higher drop-out rate in therapy.
Overall, research on the effectiveness of using EMDR to treat trauma is encouraging. Clients who are good candidates for EMDR treatment may receive a significant therapeutic improvement in a shorter amount of time than they would with other methods. Therefore, competent forensic clinician will explore the possibility of using EMDR for those clients who may benefit from this unique approach to treating trauma.