PTSD: A Treatment That Works

PTSD: A Treatment That Works

Robin Miller, MD

Trauma is more common than you may think. In the U.S. 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women have experienced at least one highly traumatic or terrifying ordeal in their lifetime. It can be due to sexual assault, suffering any serious injury, such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), and witnessing violence and fighting in the military, just to give a few examples. We don’t fully understand why some people develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others don’t. When it comes to our soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 20 percent are affected. Thirty percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from PTSD.

Related: We can reduce stress together, one person at a time. Download the FREE Android app now

I have many patients who suffer from this potentially crippling anxiety disorder. Symptoms can include nightmares; insomnia, anxiety and depression, headaches and joint and belly pain, to name just a few. Most people experience emotional pain and suffering on a daily basis. They think about and repeatedly relive the trauma during the day and have nightmares at night. While talk therapy is the most common form of treatment for PTSD, a few years ago I became aware of a quick, safe, highly effective alternative treatment—EMDR, or eye movement desensitization reprocessing. What I’ve found is that EMDR has worked on ALL of my patients who have been willing to try it – and most only needed a total of four sessions to see results. It has been truly remarkable.

Related: What is Major Depressive Disorder?

How did this revolutionary treatment come about? In 1987, Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, discovered a way of diminishing the intensity of disturbing thoughts by directing a patient’s eye movements or by making rhythmic tapping sounds as the patient describes the traumatic event.

What can you expect if you or a loved one tries this treatment? First, a comprehensive personal history is taken. You’re then asked to make a list of the events that led to the trauma. The third step is to describe the negative thought associated with the trauma, and to develop a positive thought. The therapist then moves his or her hands back and forth in front of your face, asking you to follow these hand movements with your eyes. At the same time you’re asked to describe in detail what happened. Some therapists, instead of directing your eye movements, use sounds such as tapping their hands or feet as you describe the event. The therapist gradually shifts your focus to the positive thought.

How can this possibly work? What EMDR does is change the way in which we process painful and traumatic memories. Patients still remember the events, but without the emotional attachment. I have a great therapist to whom I refer the majority of my patients. She says it’s as if you are driving a pick-up truck. All of your emotional baggage is in the back of that truck. You leave the tailgate down and start to drive. Watching in the rearview mirror you can see the stuff flying out the back. You just keep on driving and leave it there.

I know it sounds like voodoo, but I have seen remarkable transformations in people who have undergone EMDR. While some professionals may feel it’s controversial, it has received wide acceptance within the mental health community, including by the American Psychological Association. There have been at least 20 controlled studies done on EMDR. One study conducted at Kaiser Permanente found that 100 percent of those suffering a single trauma were cured of their PTSD. They were treated with only six 50-minute sessions. In another study, 77.7 percent of combat veterans no longer suffered from PTSD after 12 sessions.

Psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists who have received special training administer EMDR therapy. The biggest challenge I have had is convincing my patients to try it. Many are quite skeptical – some think it can’t possibly work, while others fear they’ll get their hopes up only to have it fail.

If you or someone you know is suffering from PTSD you might want to look into finding a therapist who is trained in EMDR. There is an EMDR network ( that can help you locate a therapist in your area. Your primary care provider may also be able to help your search. It may sound like an unusual approach—but there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving it a try.

Medically reviewed in November 2018.

PTSD Treatments That Could Work for You
PTSD Treatments That Could Work for You
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after any event that’s considered traumatizing, from a car accident to a heart attack to a combat expe...
Read More
Is critical incident stress debriefing an effective treatment for PTSD?
Michael J. Mufson, MDMichael J. Mufson, MD
One PTSD treatment technique that has not proved effective is a practice known as critical incident ...
More Answers
Are there alternative treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)Honor Society of Nursing (STTI)
There are no alternative treatments for PTSD, but there are several ways you can manage the symptoms...
More Answers
What is the treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Dr. Michael Breus, PhDDr. Michael Breus, PhD
Current treatments for PTSD include: reliving the experience (called exposure) and then working with...
More Answers