It sounds too good, and frankly too bizarre, to be true. After just three 90-minute sessions, people suffering emotionally after severe trauma such as rape, a car accident or abuse, can be rid of their debilitating symptoms. Add the fact that the therapy involves moving the eyes rapidly from side to side, and that it was discovered by an American while out for a walk, and one would forgive a sceptical raising of eyebrows.
Yet the treatment, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), is believed by some to be one of the most effective treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It has been used to help Britons affected by September 11, survivors of the Paddington and Hatfield rail disasters, and those traumatised by the Hillsborough football tragedy. Further afield, it has offered relief to those caught up in the earthquake in Turkey, the floods in Bangladesh and the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.
EMDR was developed by the American psychologist Dr Francine Shapiro, who, struggling to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis in 1987, noticed that her distressing thoughts lessened when she moved her eyes from side to side. Her subsequent research, published in 1989 in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, found in a randomised controlled study of 23 PTSD sufferers, who included victims of rape and abuse and Vietnam veterans, that symptoms were dramatically reduced after one long session of treatment.
The therapy was brought to Britain by Dr John Spector, a consultant clinical psychologist at Watford General Hospital. Impressed by a paper in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry in 1991, written by the American psychologist Dr Joseph Wolpe (one of the founders of behavioural therapy), Dr Spector started using the treatment on his patients with "astonishingly good" results.
Dr Spector, who then trained in the method under Dr Shapiro, has since organised the training of more than 2,000 British mental- health professionals, about half of whom work in the NHS. EMDR is now used almost exclusively at the PTSD clinic at Watford General Hospital, and is commonly used at the Maudsley in south London.
PTSD symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks and intrusive and disturbing memories, believed to be the result of trauma too severe to process. The disturbing memories are held in the right hemisphere, the more primitive, non-verbal part of the brain, on which traditional talking therapies are thought to have little effect. Each time a person is reminded of the trauma, perhaps by a sound or image, they experience high anxiety and panic, which rational thought from the left hemisphere does little to quell.
EMDR appears to work by stimulating connections between the right and left hemispheres. "It may be related to what happens in REM sleep, which we know is a time when we process information," says Dr Spector. "During that period the eyes are moving quite rapidly and if you have a nightmare and get to a very frightening point you wake up. What we are doing in EMDR is keeping the eye movements going to get the processing through that point to resolution."
Clients are asked to concentrate on a visual image that represents the most upsetting aspect of their trauma, a corresponding belief such as "I'm bad" or "It was my fault", and notice what they experience physically. Meanwhile, the therapist moves his or her finger swiftly back and forth about 2ft from the client's face. About 24 movements are performed, watched by the client, who is then asked what they experienced. The process is typically repeated 20 to 40 times per session, which lasts from 60 to 90 minutes. The stimulation can also be achieved by tapping alternative hands, or by audio stimulation in each ear, but research has found the eye movement to be more effective.
"The therapist doesn't talk much apart from asking for information such as `What did you notice? …