How do we absorb past hurts without carrying the negative emotions and radically altering our experience of the present? It’s the struggle of life. For researchers and therapists, it’s also a lifelong subject of study.
Yogis teach breathing techniques—essentially teaching people to exhale emotional suffering out of their systems. One therapist I spoke to told me he advised his patients to wear a rubber band around their wrists. Every time a negative memory or thought cropped up he instructed them to pluck the elastic band as a way of jolting themselves out of a negative reverie.
American psychologist Francine Shapiro (via Time.com) has discovered her own technique for dealing with emotional trauma: she moved her eyes rapidly. And her technique, known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), notes Time.com writer Maia Salavitz, has become one of the more successful forms of treatment for PTSD.
In an interview with Time Shapiro described her discovery of the technique while she was out walking one day. Said Shapiro: “I noticed that some disturbing thoughts I was having were suddenly disappearing. When I thought to bring them back, they didn’t have the same charge any more.”
When she thought about how these feelings dissipated, she realized that she’d been doing something strange with her eyes. “I noticed that…my eyes started moving in a certain way and the thoughts shifted from consciousness and when I brought them back, it wasn’t that intense.”
That negative-thought-banishing eye movement was a rapid diagonal movement, which she identifies as “saccadic”. (Saccidic eye movements are essentially zig-zag jumps by the eyes from fixed points of interest, e.g., from a person’s eyes to their lips and back again.)
Sounds kooky, sure. But what’s more interesting about Shapiro’s discovery is that she later made a connection between what her eyes were doing that day and the movements our eyes naturally make during REM sleep. Said Shapiro: “At this point, the research [suggests] that the REM state is when the brain is processing survival-related information.”
Recent, unrelated studies have also supported the idea that REM sleep provides a healthy process of emotional purgation, essentially helping us move forward. EMDR, like REM sleep, allows the mind to process experience without hanging on to the vividness of the emotions associated with the event.