Anxiety

How Eye Movement Therapy Helped One Woman Overcome PTSD and Panic Attacks

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Jazmine Light hung up her phone, pulse racing, as a rush of fear overtook her. Oh no, she thought, heart hammering in her chest. Not another panic attack.

For the once happy-go-lucky massage therapist, panic had become a way of life since 2006, when Jazmine had married the man of her dreams — only to wind up in a living nightmare. As she had soon learned, her new husband was actually a criminal and drug addict who would fly into violent rages and threaten her life daily. When he’d finally gone to prison, she was able to divorce him, but if something or someone reminded her of him, panic would set in and Jazmine would flee, drenched in sweat and struggling to breathe.

After 13 hospitalizations, a doctor finally diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but even with a diagnosis, panic attacks continued to keep Jazmine from enjoying life and forming romantic attachments. After no therapy or medication helped, Jazmine’s predicament reached new heights when she met a new man with similarities to her ex — and felt panic for three weeks. I’m going to find an answer, she thought, cuing up her computer. I’m going to get my life back.

A life-changing cure.

Googling remedies for PTSD, Jazmine found a TED Talk by a woman who had used Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, to recover from abuse. Maybe this is my answer, Jazmine thought as she searched for a psychotherapist who practiced EMDR nearby.

Luckily, her insurance covered the eye movement therapy sessions, and soon, Jazmine was seated in a therapist’s office, learning more about the technique. As her therapist explained, EMDR focuses patients’ attention on their own eye movement while they relive a troubling memory and explore the beliefs they have about themselves in relation to it.

“Thinking about traumatic events is less triggering when your attention is diverted,” the therapist explained, moving her finger in front of Jazmine’s eyes to create side-to-side movement. The therapist also explained how studies show that since fear is retained in the amygdala, the most primitive fight-or-flight part of the brain, EMDR works to turn attention away from the physical panic response that the memory creates so it becomes less powerful. After that, the patient can use their logical brain to reason their way out of a panic attack — which is how it worked with Jazmine.

During her sessions, Jazmine would think about specific traumatic incidents, like her husband pulling a knife on her. At first, she would feel the usual pull of panic as her heartbeat quickened, but as her therapist instructed her to move her eyes back and forth and her feet in and out pressing from toe to heel, the terror subsided and she was able to repeat to herself: I am safe now. I’m in my therapist’s office. He’s gone, and I’m no longer in danger. After four sessions, a miracle happened when Jazmine called for an Uber and saw the driver’s name was the same as one of her ex-husband’s criminal friends. Instead of panicking and canceling the ride as she would have before, she was able to reason with herself that it was a common name and take the cab without incident.

“It’s amazing!” Jazmine says with a smile. “Now, when I experience events that used to trigger hard emotions, I don’t have a panic attack. I just feel emotional and it passes. Eye movement therapy has given me my life back!”

This article originally appeared in our print magazine.

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