On Memorial Day, we honor those who sacrificed their lives while serving in the military. Meanwhile many military members who’ve returned from service continue to struggle with their mental health. But this treatment, which is growing in popularity, can help some veterans heal the invisible wounds of war. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports.

A woman follows a therapist's finger during EMDR treatment

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR therapy, focuses on the connection between eye movement and bad memories.

Credit: emdrassociation.org.uk

A therapy gaining in popularity is proving especially helpful with military veterans and others living with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR therapy, focuses on the connection between eye movement and persistent upsetting memories.

The drug-free treatment was specifically developed in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro as a way to alleviate stress associated with bad memories. 

"Where we're not experiencing the old emotions and the sensations that go with it," Taylor said. "So, it allows us to be informed by our memories instead of controlled by them."

EMDR therapy allows people to remember a memory properly, said Licensed Associate Professional Counselor Marlo Taylor, who counsels patients in a private practice located in Cherokee County.

She said veterans make some of the best patients because their emotions are tied to specific traumas. 

The way it works is, the patient is asked to hold the image of the trauma in their mind while the therapist guides the patient’s eye movement using a light or a finger. It uses bilateral stimulation of the brain through eye movements.

"And what happens is, through that bilateral stimulation, you're activating both sides of the brain at the same time, allowing the client to reprocess a memory that was improperly stored," she said. "The benefit for, especially in talking about veterans, is that you're able to recover from trauma without having to talk at great length."

The first part of the treatment involves targeting the memory to process, and recognizing an image representing the worst part of that memory.

"The client holds that image in mind along with the negative cognition that's associated with it," Taylor said. "So, something like, 'I'm not good enough, I'm helpless, I'm stuck.' And then they notice where they feel it in their body."

For some people, the somatic expression of trauma comes across as tightness in their chest or that their throat feels like it's closing or their hands feel clammy, Taylor said.

"We hold those three things together as we start the eye movements," she said.

The re-processing of a memory does not have to conclude within the hour-long session. Stopping does not create danger for the patient, Taylor said.

"We have little exercises that we can do to kind of box the memory and kind of put it on a mental shelf so that we can come back to it the next time," she said.

Jess Geyerman is one of Taylor's patients who is about to try EMDR for the first time. His appointment took place a day after this interview.

Geyerman is a retired Marine who was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1997, after five years of service as a combat engineer. He is one of the roughly 8% of Georgians who've served in the military.

Leaving such a structured environment, and returning to civilian life is tough, he said.

"It was as hard for me as it was for, you know, for about anybody, I suppose," Geyerman said.

After he began to notice that he wasn't adjusting well to getting out of the Marines, he sought mental health treatment.

"And I can only imagine what it's like for the combat veterans. You know, it's got to be ten times worse," he said.

He described himself as an accident-prone man who is fortunate to have avoided combat; his injuries happened off the field.

Geyerman was diagnosed with treatment-resistant depression.

He tried talk therapy, and he tried ketamine. Both failed to make a noticeable difference.

"I'm really interested in this EMDR," he said. "And if it's helpful in any way, shape or form, that would be awesome because I react badly to drugs."

While Geyerman remains open to the possibility of talk therapy in the future, he is grateful that EMDR does not require it.

"It would definitely be more helpful to be, you know, to do something where you're not expected to whole hog go right into, you know, whatever is the most traumatic thing or whatever is depressing you, period, and have to explain it to a virtual stranger," he said. "And anything that can jump start that process would be absolutely amazing."