Skip to main content

Can managing eye movements help with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Yes it can

By Jacqui Beasley
Rehabilitation Consultant

Modern rehabilitation is not only about healing the physical body but also the mind. Therapies for the mind can be seen by laymen as alternative and without scientific rationale. Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)is such an example that has proven efficacy in the rehabilitation of those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.


EMDR Therapy was first developed by Francine Shapiro upon noticing that certain eye movements reduced the intensity of disturbing thought. Shapiro noted that when she was experiencing a disturbing thought, her eyes were involuntarily moving rapidly. She noticed further that, when she brought her eye movements under voluntary control while thinking a traumatic thought, anxiety was reduced. Shapiro developed EMDR therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She speculated that traumatic events “upset the excitatory/inhibitory balance in the brain, causing a pathological change in the neural elements”.

Although the exact mechanism of EMDR is not fully understood, some experts believe that it may be related to stimulation of the part of the brain called the amygdala which produces natural opiates.

How does EMDR work?

When a person is involved in a distressing event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to process the information like a normal memory. The distressing memory seems to become frozen on a neurological level. It appears that this method unlocks and accesses valuable information stored in the brain. The negative states that typically inhibit optimal physical, mental, and emotional functioning are often the direct result of the cumulative effects of stress over time.

Results of recent research show that stress damages several different neuro-biological processes, resulting in negative alterations to brain chemistry and the blocking of information processing.

When a person recalls the distressing memory, the person can re-experience what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted or felt, and this can be quite intense. Sometimes, because the memories are so distressing, the person tries to avoid thinking about the event to avoid experiencing the emotional intensity.

What happens in a session

The therapist works gently with the patient, asking them to revisit a traumatic memory or incident, recalling feelings surrounding the experience, including any negative thoughts, sensations, and images. 

The therapist uses their fingers to make horizontal movements from side to side. The patient is instructed to track the movements with their eyes, while concentrating on a memory. This is done in multiple sets. The more intensely the patient focuses on the memory, the easier it becomes for the memory to come to life. As quick and vibrant images arise during the therapy session, they are processed by the eye movements, resulting in painful feelings being exchanged for a deep sense of resolution. 

The alternating left-right stimulation of the brain with eye movements, sounds or taps during EMDR, seems to stimulate the frozen or blocked information processing system.

 In the process the distressing memories seem to lose their intensity and seem more like 'ordinary' memories. The effect is believed to be similar to that which occurs naturally during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) when your eyes rapidly move from side to side.

How many sessions?

It is recommended by the UK's Nattional Institute of Health and Clinical excellence (NICE) for Post-Traumatic stress disorder.

Repeated studies show that, by using EMDR, people can experience the benefits of psychotherapy that once took years to make a difference. It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain requires a long time to heal. Repeated controlled studies have shown that a single trauma can be processed within 3 sessions of EMDR in 80 -90 % of participants. (