PTSD, EMDR and Computer Games and Drawing

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.

Zoo Empire

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.

Artist Studio: Ruza Bagaric / Dumbo Arts Cente...

Artist Studio: Ruza Bagaric / Dumbo Arts Center: Art Under the Bridge Festival 2009 / 20090926.10D.54595.P1.L1 / SML (Photo credit: See-ming Lee 李思明 SML)

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.



21 thoughts on “PTSD, EMDR and Computer Games and Drawing

  1. First thought in my head: Sheldon! 🙂

    I don’t play computer games. I do however explore Pinterest. I’ve had to limit my time there. I have a variety of boards and try to pin something to half of them when I visit. Being quick lets me see more before I have to go back to whatever else I was doing. Amazing how you are able to work through what each game provides you. Cool.

    • LOL, Sheldon! Yes, socially I’m a bit like Sheldon too! Over-analytical and fairly geeky. I just thought that perhaps reading uses the same eye movement theory, especially when scanning. So maybe reading self-help books is twice as helpful 🙂

  2. Interesting. I noticed that I play games when I am sorting through a problem. Biggest challenge my counselor had was persuading me to remember my past in the first place. I am a big believer in using a variety of methods improve our health both mental and physical so should probably apply to social and emotional. Can you imagine the frustration a person would feel if EMDR didn’t work for them. I noticed that the tricals did not have 100% success.

    • I have heard many people use games to get through tough periods and sort thing out mentally. I agree completely, that we all need a wide variety of methods, and it could be devastating to put so much stock into something promised as a quick fix, and not have it work for you. Very dangerous when self worth is already low. My therapist never makes promises for cures, just promises to help me through each obstacle, and always tells me there will be another obstacle at some point.

  3. haha! WOW. I play all of those games you mentioned, sometimes with a frantic desire not to stop. I think it’s interesting we have that in common as well. 🙂

    I actually took a year of EMDR with my current therapist. I don’t know if the treatment worked as it should have but it gave me a free-form way to express whatever my brain was tossing around. I made connections quickly and felt a lot of memories settle down, find their place.

    There is a lot of quick eye movements in those time management games and you really don’t have to think about what you’re doing so, if you’re like me, you end up processing things that are sitting in the queue. Interesting take on that.

    • Yes when my anxiety is really bad, or I have uncovered another stage of healing, I have the frantic desire for those games, and then worry I have a game addiction. So I started investigating exactly what purpose those games serve for me. The funny part is how I now use the games while on the phone with my mom or brother, it takes the sting out of their words and allows me to listen without getting hurt. I think now that it may also help me not to form a strong memory or attachment to their words so I don’t linger or obsess or replay the conversation like I used to torture myself with.

  4. Interesting article, I too, published one on my blog about how video games help kids deal with stress and how they teach people to cope with discomfort. Thanks for the game ideas too!

  5. I’m a therapist who uses EMDR as my primary treatment psychotherapy and I’ve also personally had EMDR therapy for anxiety, panic, grief, and “small t” trauma. As a client, EMDR worked extremely well and also really fast. As an EMDR therapist, and in my role as a facilitator who trains other therapists in EMDR (certified by the EMDR International Assoc. and trained by the EMDR Institute, both of which I strongly recommend in an EMDR therapist) I have used EMDR successfully with panic disorders, single incident trauma and complex/chronic PTSD, anxiety, depression, grief, body image, phobias, distressing memories, bad dreams and more…

    It’s really crucial that a professionally trained therapist spends enough time in one of the initial phases (Phase 2) that involves preparing for memory processing or desensitization (memory processing or desensitization – phases 3-6 – is often referred to as “EMDR” which is actually an 8-phase psychotherapy). In this phase resources are “front-loaded” so that you have a “floor” or “container” to help with processing the really hard stuff. In Phase 2 you learn a lot of great coping strategies and self-soothing techniques which you can use during EMDR processing or anytime you feel the need. So if you start feeling overwhelmed or that it’s too intense, you can ground yourself (with your therapist’s help in session, and on your own between sessions) and feel safe enough to continue the work. While EMDR therapy (and no efficacious treatment for trauma) should go “digging” for buried memories, sometimes memory does become more clear, and related memories emerge which can then become targets of their own for EMDR processing. In my practice, after the Phase 2 work lets us know that my patient is safe enough and able to cope with any emotion and/or physical sensation both during and between EMDR processing sessions, I often suggest we try a much less intense memory first if there is one that happened BEFORE the trauma(s). If there isn’t one, then I suggest we start developmentally with the least disturbing memory and work our way “up” to the most disturbing event(s). Thorough knowledge of the biopsychosocial impact of trauma and PTSD is crucial for a therapist who uses EMDR or any psychotherapy when working with trauma survivors.

    Grounding exercises are indispensable in everyday life, and really essential in stressful times. Anyone can use some of the techniques in Dr. Shapiro’s new book “Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR.” Dr. Shapiro is the founder/creator of EMDR but all the proceeds from the book go to two charities: the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program and the EMDR Research Foundation). Anyway, the book is terrific. It’s an easy read, helps you understand what’s “pushing” your feelings and behavior, helps you connect the dots from past experiences to current life. Also teaches readers lots of helpful techniques that can be used immediately and that are also used during EMDR therapy to calm disturbing thoughts and feelings.
    As I’ve mentioned about Phase 2, during EMDR therapy you learn coping strategies and self-soothing techniques that you can use during EMDR processing or anytime you feel the need. You learn how to access a “Safe or Calm Place” which you can use at ANY TIME during EMDR processing (or on your own) if it feels scary, or too emotional, too intense. One of the key assets of EMDR is that YOU, the client, are in control NOW, even though you likely were not during past events. You NEVER need re-live an experience or go into great detail, ever! You NEVER need to go through the entire memory. YOU can decide to keep the lights (or the alternating sounds and/or tactile pulsars, or the waving hand) going, or stop them, whichever helps titrate – measure and adjust the balance or “dose“ of the processing. During EMDR processing there are regular “breaks” and you can control when and how many but the therapist should be stopping the bilateral stimulation every 25-50 passes of the lights to ask you to take a deep breath and ask you to say just a bit of what you’re noticing. (The stimulation should not be kept on continuously, because there are specific procedures that need to be followed to process the memory). The breaks help keep a “foot in the present” while you’re processing the past. Again, and I can’t say this enough, YOU ARE IN CHARGE so YOU can make the process tolerable. And your therapist should be experienced in the EMDR techniques that help make it the gentlest and safest way to neutralize bad life experiences and build resources.

    Pacing and dosing are critically important. So if you ever feel that EMDR processing is too intense then it might be time to go back over all the resources that should be used both IN session and BETWEEN sessions. Your therapist should be using a variety of techniques to make painful processing less painful, like suggesting you turn the scene in your mind to black and white, lower the volume, or, erect a bullet-proof glass wall between you and the painful scene, or, imagine the abuser speaking in a Donald Duck voice… and so forth. There are a lot of these kinds of “interventions” that ease the processing. They are called “cognitive interweaves” that your therapist can use, and that also can help bring your adult self’s perspective into the work (or even an imaginary Adult Perspective). Such interweaves are based around issues of Safety, Responsibility, and Choice. So therapist questions like “are you safe now?” or “who was responsible? and “do you have more choices now?” are all very helpful in moving the processing along.

    In addition to my therapy practice, I roam the web looking for EMDR discussions, try to answer questions about it posted by clients/patients, and respond to the critics out there. It’s not a cure-all therapy. However, it really is an extraordinary psychotherapy and its results last. In the hands of a really experienced EMDR therapist, it’s the most gentle way of working through disturbing experiences.

    • Wow, thank you so much for that detailed description. It is so great to hear from someone that sees how a form of therapy can actually help people, and that you obviously have a passion for helping people. I don’t know any therapists in my area trained in EMDR, and not sure I want to see someone new after so many years, but I do wish I had known about it years ago when I started this healing journey. Great discussion – thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment here. 🙂

  6. OMG; maybe that is why I play computer games. I don’t do it continuously but every once in a while go on a spree. I’ll play 3 games and then nothing for 6 months, then I’ll come back to gaming. I like time management games (wedding dash) and reading. I’m wondering if these alleviate feelings of anxiety for me. And when it gets too much I get into game playing mode for a week. Thank you for sharing this; this has opened my eyes (no pun intended) about my behaviours. xxoo T Reddy

    • You too? Yes, that is my pattern too. I can go for a while, usually weeks not months without caring about or thinking about games, then it will become this obsessive need to game, game, game. So interesting how many people have similar behavior patterns. Thanks for sharing that with me.

      • It is really interesting to see how much we have in common with behavior patterns, we are not alone :). I’m starting to see some of my behavior patterns as numbing. I think gaming is one of them; I have others like organizing (I do this occasionally and I’m not naturally a neat person). xxoo T

  7. I think playing games is a nice escape and can redirect invasive memories. However, I see nothing similar between EMDR and zoning out with computer games. It’s sorta the opposite. EMDR actually has you focus in on a specific memory, sensation, upsetting trigger, and really feel it deeply. You concentrate on the unpleasantness, while you do the eye movement. The goal is that this rapid eye movement rewires the bad memory and the dissonance/discomfort lessens during the EMDR session. Then you process through the memory some more with talking, physically unblocking yourself (pushing/kicking away the abuser), and you peel away at it, until you just get to the grief. It’s grueling. It’s nothing like Sim City. 🙂

    • Have you tried EMDR? I have not. So I compared what I read about it here, only comparing the eye movement part. Some times I do play games to zone out, and almost go numb with the escape. I did that for many years while I hid my pain and hid myself, before I was ready to deal with anything. Once I started coming out of my depression, and started feeling ready to face the painful memories, I noticed I played games differently. I started craving time management games that use super fast and repetitive eye movement across the screen. While I play these games, I do not zone out. I actually go into a painful memory, and reply it, over and over again. It is grueling the way I do it, and I do have intense visualization and reactions. Somehow I could face the memory while playing the game, and afterwards I would feel relief. I have no evidence, only my own little theory here that the eye movement in playing certain games could help to retrieve and process misfiled memories of PTSD. Maybe the eye movement has nothing to do with it, and maybe playing the game provides a sort of barrier so the memory does not get too intense. I don’t know the reason it works for me, but it certainly does work for me to reduce anxiety. I do know it is more complicated than simply enjoying and relaxing with a game, because I am not relaxed while playing these, and only a specific type of game gives me the relief. And the interesting part to me, is before I realized this connection, I never sat down to play a game on purpose to work out things or feel better. Instead I was drawn to these games, nearly addicted – the games would consume my thoughts and i would get irritable until I returned to them. Our brains are so fascinating, and everything is so complicated and related in yet unknown ways.

      • Yes, I started EMDR a few months ago. My jury is still out on how helpful it has been overall, but it has helped my panic attacks. For me, my memories are always playing in the background of my mind and body. It’s so uncomfortable and overwhelming if I let it take up too much of my mind. It sounds like your gaming might be the pressure-release valve on your memories, like they are always there, but the act of doing computer games can turn the volume down. I would venture that it might have something to do with the small repetitive movement, kinda like those studies that link repetitive motion (like knitting) and improved depression. I wouldn’t limit it to just your eyes, though, it sounds like the mental processes and physical rhythm plays a part, too. In any event, it’s cool that it has helped you. I wonder if the addictive properties were from the repetition and release you got from it.
        So where do you stand with it now? Are you still drawn to it, or are there other things you do, instead?

      • I love this discussion so much I think it will become another post. I think you could be right, that the repetition in general is helpful, not limited to eyes. Where I stand with it now is not the level of addiction I have had in previous years, but yes, I am still drawn to it on occasion. Now I mostly use games as mental drinks of water, to clear my mind and switch gears in between projects during the day. I tend to be obsessive in everything, and I find that a quick computer game allows my thoughts to get unstuck and move on to another topic.

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