I have been using computer games and drawing for most of my life to escape the anxiety that builds up inside of me. I always thought they were just an escape. I am now wondering if my eye movement during these games and art sessions could actually be a helpful form of EMDR?
EMDR has many skeptics. I am a believer that anything is possible, and I also know that eye movements are attached to memories, as most people look up and to the left when directly recalling something. I think the main issue with the skepticism is how quickly EMDR proponents say it can work and the sense of sensationalism brings up a quack alert. I do believe EMDR could have an immediate effect, just as any therapy session could. I don’t really believe it can “cure” someone of all lifelong emotional distress in just a few sessions. My current therapist is not certified to do this technique, and so I have never tried it. We do, however, attach positive “I survived” and “It wasn’t my fault” emotions to past events in a somewhat similar manner, without the finger tracking, as described below.
Excerpt: Although EMDR is alleged to be a complicated technique that requires extensive training (Shapiro 1992), the treatment’s key elements can be summarized briefly. Clients are first asked to visualize the traumatic event as vividly as possible. While retaining this image in mind, they are told to supply a statement that epitomizes their reaction to it (e.g., “I am about to die”). Clients are then asked to rate their anxiety on a Subjective Units of Distress (SUDs) scale, which ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being no anxiety and 10 being extreme terror. In addition, they are told to provide a competing positive statement that epitomizes their desired reaction to the image (e.g., “I can make it”), and to rate their degree of belief in this statement on a 0 to 8 Validity of Cognition scale.
Following these initial steps, clients are asked to visually track the therapist’s finger as it sweeps rhythmically from right to left in sets of 12 to 24 strokes, alternated at a speed of two strokes per second. The finger motion is carried out for 12 to 14 seconds in front of the client’s eyes. Following each set of 12 to 24 strokes, clients are asked to “blank out” the visual image and inhale deeply, and are then asked for a revised SUDs rating. This process is repeated until clients’ SUDs ratings fall to 2 or lower and their Validity of Cognition ratings rise to 6 or higher.
So I’m thinking, wow, all these years, when I feel stress, I turn on my computer and play hours of intense games. Some of my escape games are SimCity, Zoo Empire and other Build and Wait games. These require holding so much information in working memory at once that nothing else interrupts. But in the past few years, as I have really begun to heal from PTSD and recover from the painful past, I have been selecting time management games like Diner Dash, Hotel Mania, Airport Mania, etc. These games require quick lateral eye movements across the screen as you select your next move and queue up enough steps to stay ahead of demand. It requires the same quick mousing movements. But it does not require the overall management and planning of simultaneous goals like the Sims do, and so my mind can wander freely. Now when I play these games, memories often come up, as they do at any time for me. But while gaming, I see, hear, and re-experience some past event, but I don’t feel anything about it while playing, no distress, just facts whooshing past my consciousness. I have to wonder if this has helped me to process and desensitize. And I wonder if the eye movements actually helped me to recall certain events that I had not been trying to recall, and certainly were not related to anything I was currently experiencing.
Drawing is something else that can take me to a safe zone, a soft cocoon of no stress. When I first get started, the planning, the creating, the composing the scene, I am completely absorbed. No wandering thoughts at all. But when I draw an object, my eyes move quickly from my own paper to the object, always checking for accuracy, comparing, adjusting. I prefer to have a photo of the object to use as reference and mount it directly next to my own drawing, which I now realize uses that same lateral eye movement. And of course my mind is free to wander here during the drawing phase and it always does. I have to wonder if this relaxed state, combined with the eye movements, helps us to recall and process past memories. And I have to wonder if some of the emotions of the past memories somehow get infused into the artwork, and that’s why a drawing can be so much more interesting to look at than the photo of the same object.
The brain is fascinating, and I love learning more about it. If I had my own fMRI and SPECT equipment I would be scanning myself daily to see what was going on up there.