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EMDR: New hope for phobia sufferers
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock

Three years after the accident that totaled her small car, Kirstin still had a “flight-or-fight” response behind the wheel. Even though she had escaped without injury, the moment of that crash was firm in her mind. She remembered vividly what clothes she was wearing, the song on the radio, and the conversation she had with her passenger moments before the crash. And driving was becoming more and more frightening for her. She began to worry that one day, she wouldn’t be able to make it to work.


A psychologist diagnosed Kirstin (not her real name) with post-traumatic stress disorder, and when therapy and medications failed, suggested a treatment that sounded somewhat strange – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treatment. Kirstin decided she had nothing to lose.


During the treatment, the psychologist asked Kirstin to talk about her fear, and the moment of impact that day, while he moved his finger back and forth rapidly in front of her face. Her eyes darted back and forth, back and forth. “It was really bizarre – actually, it seemed kind of silly,” Kirstin says. “But after two treatments, I found out that when I tried to think about that moment – even when I tried to bring up the old fears – it was hard to focus on it. The fear seemed just out of reach of my memory, like a dream upon waking.”


EMDR is a psychotherapy treatment originally developed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. But since so many fears and phobias have their start in a memory of trauma, many doctors are finding EMDR works for them, too.


No one knows precisely how EMDR works – and like any other psychotherapy, the technique works better for some than others. But it’s thought that EMDR helps to “rewire” the brain so memories and fears become less predominant. (Some practitioners believe EMDR works in the same way as REM sleep, when the eyes move rapidly back and forth.)


Successful treatment with EMDR results in a relief of distress “reformulated” negative beliefs and reduced physiological arousal.  While most doctors use the finger therapy described above, hand-tapping and audio stimulation can also be used.


Paula Cain Gorman, a licensed therapist in Madison, Wis, first heard about EMDR from a colleague. “He was in a staff meeting, talking about how effective it was – so effective so quickly, that it made room for more clients!”


Cain Gorman admits, “At first, I thought it sounded pretty far out, but I knew my colleague as a very well-respected, fine clinician.” To find out more, Cain Gorman underwent the therapy herself. “Having tried it on my own self with a phobia and a trauma, I was amazed at its efficacy,” she says.


After reaching an “impasse” with one of her clients who was depressed due to a breakup with a fiancée, “I found upon exploration that this person had experienced a significant loss in adolescence, and the pattern of behavior that contributed significantly to the relationship was very familiar to how this big loss occurred (a drug overdose). The trigger for both losses were so similar, and with time and traditional insight-oriented talk therapy the depression wouldn’t lift, even as new behaviors were practiced,” she said.


Cain Gorman wanted to refer her client to another colleague for EMDR, but the client said to her, “Trust is the most important element of any therapy, and you already have that.” So Cain Gorman took EMDR training and became certified, and did the therapy for her client. “The person targeted the event and the depression lifted,” she said.


Since then, Cain Gorman has given EMDR therapy to many people with depression, PTSD, and phobias, which, she says, “have the same basic ‘root.’” While EMDR’s effectiveness for phobias in the literature is mixed, there is no denying that it works powerfully for some.


A phobia is an intense, involuntary fear toward a particular situation or object that poses no actual danger. The phobic realizes his fear may be irrational, but trying to be “rational” doesn’t help. Instead, he must avoid the subject of their anxiety, which impacts his quality of life. In a worst-case scenario, a phobic may develop medical conditions (fear of doctors, dentists and shots) or become afraid to leave his home (agoraphobia).


Most phobias are treated with some type of exposure therapy (for example, a person with a spider phobia – with the help of his therapist – first looks at a cartoon of a spider, then a photograph, then a rubber toy spider, and finally interacts with the real thing). But for some phobics the therapy itself is too frightening to contemplate.


With EMDR – and with other nontraditional therapeutic treatments like acupuncture, massage therapy, Reiki, herbal medicine, Thought Field Therapy, or homeopathy – people with phobias can find new hope.

© Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Woman. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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