Sunday, February 19, 2012

The many traumas in real life and documentary film maker Michael Burns

JAN BROGAN - I might have mentioned once or twice that I had a debilitating plane phobia for many years. I would hyperventilate during takeoff, my palms would sweat, and once I even broke down crying. I tried just about everything. Drinking - didn't even touch it. Six weeks of hypnosis at Mass General Hospital was completely useless; desensitization tapes - even more useless, and psychiatrist-prescribed drugs - totally freaked me out. Cognitive behavioral therapy helped, but only a little.

Finally, I tried a new therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which involved bilateral stimulation (either by eye movement or alternating tones) during treatment. As a health reporter, I'd been assigned to write about this therapy by an editor, and although I first refused, calling it "snake oil," I later learned just how extensively researched and tested this therapy really was and about its tremendous success treating returning combat veterans suffering from Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Somewhere in the literature it mentioned it had some success with phobias, so I decided to give it a try.

After being burdened this incredibly resistant phobia for something close to 25 years, I was completely cured in about six sessions. For me, it was a miracle. In subsequent stories I've written on this topic, I've talked to returning veterans, rape victims and child abuse survivors who have told me their own miraculous recovery stories.

So.... in what is definitely outside the box for Jungle Red, but in hopes of reaching the quarter million combat veterans who return with PTSD and other people suffering from other life traumas - whether its loss of a loved one, a divorce or even a minor car accident, I invited filmmaker Michael Burns to JR to talk about his documentary "EMDR, We either transform pain or we transmit it."

Michael is a native of Connecticut, is the producer/director of four films on American politics, Third Party, Preventive Warriors, Majority Rules, and Laban. I asked him how he got from politics to EMDR.

MichaelBurns: It was 2007 and I was completing my doctorate in film at the University of Birmingham in the UK when I had EMDR myself. I had come across it in the late David Servan-Schreiber's best-seller Healing without Freud or Prozac. When I had a breakthrough myself- and this shows you how much I sympathize with skeptics- I chalked it entirely up to coincidence. In other words, I was convinced that the EMDR I had had just activated some psychosomatic reaction on my part. I remember thinking that there's no way something so weird could have helped me. Simply out of curiosity I started to do some research on it and found out that in fact millions of people have had massively life-changing experiences with EMDR. So I ate up everything I could find on the subject, realizing that the catharsis I went through was not so unusual after all.

At about that time, a good friend suggested I make a documentary about EMDR since it still was hardly known at all in the mainstream. Completing my degree, which took a lot out of me, I didn't think I had the energy for a new project, but it kept popping up in the back of my mind as something that needed to be made. In the end, it was the daily bombardment with PTSD stories in the news that made me realize that I wanted to do whatever I could to help spread the word about this amazing therapy. There are so many people out there who believe that they're destined to live with the pain, body sensations, and nightmares that are grounded in things from their pasts. It's just not true. EMDR can help many of them, perhaps most of them.

JAN: How long did it take to produce the documentary and what was the biggest obstacle?

MICHAEL: I worked on it, pretty much with just my cameraman, James Kloter, for a little over three years.

The biggest obstacle was getting people to tell us their personal stories. A friend of mine put it very well the other day when she said that it's hard enough to go to therapy in the first place, relaying those details to yet another person is nearly impossible for most people. I think she's exactly right. What happens in EMDR sessions is both deeply personal and extremely hard to put into words. So, on a low budget, it became tough for us to find compelling, personal success stories to put in the movie. In the end though, we found three that did make it in, and they might just be the best parts of the film.

JAN: Your hopes for this film?
MICHAEL: I sincerely hope that people will watch this film and get in touch with that one person in their lives- maybe it's a husband, a sister, or a friend of a friend- whose ability to reach their full potential is being held back by something that happened in their past, and to tell them about EMDR. Next step is to go to the website and to find a therapist nearby or to get in touch with to talk about sessions they're offering. It's critical that people go see someone with proper training, certified by the main national EMDR professional organization, EMDRIA.

So helping those who are in critical mental condition is one of my key hopes. Having said that, EMDR is not just for the person we might know who's paralyzed by the past. I always say that it would be a miracle if any of us have sailed through life without anything traumatic happening to us. There are things in all of our histories that are holding us back, preventing us from living life the way we want to. Therefore all of us can use EMDR so that we can put disturbing memories to rest, breaking destructive habits we have and living the lives we dream of living.

JAN: In that vein, Michael has generously sent me one free copy of the film, the DVD, to give away to a lucky winner. It's one of the best explanations I've encountered on how the brain processes trauma, why it sticks in the head for years, and why EMDR can shake it free and is very moving.

Enter by posting a comment and/or signing up for our mailing list -- I need an email address to reach the winner. But please, enter only if know someone (and it can be you) who it can help. The winner will also be announced on JR by Tuesday.

For more information about EMDR or the film go to:


  1. Hi - This is an amazing find. I read about healthcare frequently and have never heard about it. Thank you for alerting us to this process. Dee

  2. Fascinating post Jan and Michael. Can you tell us a little about how it works?

  3. Hi Lucy-

    EMDR is done with a trained therapist and a client following particular steps over the course of say an hour-long session. Those steps include taking a client's history, identifying the issue/incident/memory to be targeted, and applying bilateral stimulation (moving eyes back and forth, listening to alternating tones, or even tactile hand buzzing or knee-tapping) among other steps.

    As someone who's gone through it, I can say that when the brain is stimulated that way, with a skilled therapist who knows what questions to ask to get the brain in motion, you can start to see what happened to you differently, even moving toward an intellectual and emotional reprocessing of the event in a way that allows you to be free of it. In other words, the "charge" of the memory (the sensations and thought chain-reactions it sets off) lose their intensity. And with time and enough sessions, are gone all together.

    For some people this can happen in a few sessions, for others maybe more, but many people have been helped very quickly by EMDR. It seems to activate the brain's own instinct to heal, which has been blocked somewhere along the way.

    More info also at the film's website,

    - Michael Burns

  4. Very interesting reading, but I'm still skeptical. Sounds too good to be true

  5. Thank you, Jan and Michael, for bringing this topic to JRW.

    I happen to believe PTSD is more widespread than anyone imagines. Living with it is like living with an autoimmune disorder. Triggers crop up - sometimes even the most innocent stuff - and stimulate a reaction I realized recently works like a lupus flare.

    So I know I can go for months without the panic "flaring" and I can function on a pretty good level - or, at least, "fake it" for a while.

    All that said, and pardon me for asking, but how do you know that's not what's happening with EMDR? That EMDR isn't just lulling The Dragon to sleep until some Really Big Trigger happens and then it's "Game On" all over again?

  6. Hi Rhonda-

    The research (and EMDR is the most researched psychotherapy in the world) suggests that the effects are lasting because the way your traumatic memory/experience is stored in the brain is altered after treatment. You can still remember the traumatic event with clarity but it no longer has the paralyzing charge that it once had. It no longer controls you, perhaps, is a good way of saying it.

    I'm sure that some people have had a different, less positive experience with it, but that's true for anything in life. I know for me the effect has lasted. I hope your interest is piqued enough to watch the film. A trailer is online here:

  7. Dianne and Rhonda,

    I am the world's biggest skeptic which was why I originally refused to take my first assignment writing about EMDR.

    But because it was so controversial, there is more independent research and testing that now supports the validity of EMDR than any other form of therapy.

    One brain researcher at Harvard told me that REM sleep is the normal process by which we process trauma - but sometimes that system goes askew.

    EMDR helps mimic REM sleep, and puts your brain in its natural state for processing and healing.

    And Rhonda, I SO agree with you - so many people are screwed up for life after a trauma - especially in the inner city where kids experience so much violent trauma - and it affects them for life. Even something minor like a car accident can shake you up.

    The reason EMDR was able to cure my plane phobia because it was a reaction to my brother's sudden death when I was 22. I had sleep problems and PTSD and never once suspected it. I actually thought I'd handled mourning fairly well.


  8. Ah..thank you for this. Fascinating? Can it work for--changing one's reaction to the world in general? If there's not a preciptating incident that caused a change..but just an outlook or habit?

  9. a propos of...memory? Jan, Joni Mitchell singing Carey is playing now..and it profoundly reminds me of you. Why is that?

  10. I play it and sing it on guitar a lot, but I don't think you ever heard me.


    Or maybe I told you I was in Matala Greece once, complaining about the beach tar on my feet and the wind that was in from Africa and said, HEY WAIT A MINUTE!

    This must be where Joni wrote her song. Then I went up to the Mermaid Cafe and ordered a bottle of wine!

  11. Hank,

    it only works if a trauma is at the centre of the reaction I think, but the thing is, it can be a very minor trauma, and in fact, sometimes you don't even realize it was trauma-induced because the memory does play tricks


  12. Jan-- what a great story! I just burst out laughing,and Jonathan said--what's funny? Bit it was too hard to explain...

  13. Jan-- what a great story! I just burst out laughing,and Jonathan said--what's funny? Bit it was too hard to explain...

  14. I know someone who had EMDR after a catastrophic family event. She ws very glad that she did it. That was a few years ago, and things are going well. I know someone else that I am convinced would benefit from it but the person is very skeptical about ANY sort of therapy. I would love to mention EMDR but I am quite sure that I would get a negative reaction.

    I am curious about whether or not insurance covers it?

  15. Deb,
    Yes, if your insurance covers the practitioner, it covers EMDR. Many psychologists and social workers use it.

    My insurance paid for it entirely. Although it sounds weird, EMDR is now the Department of Defense's list of preferred treatments. It's become increasingly mainstream.

  16. I'm a therapist, and anything that helps people with their suffering is worth it.

  17. Both my husband and I have had EMDR, with great success. As Michael says, it takes the charge out of the event. The event doesn't need to be dramatic, although it does need to be identifiable -- it can address a relationship issue, e.g., a problem with a parent or friend, if you can identify a particular episode or statement that serves as a trigger. I highly recommend it.

    We also used the tapping to treat a dog with PTSD -- she'd been dumped in the country as a puppy during a thunderstorm and shot at -- along with glandular therapy and Tellington Touch, with great success.

    (No need to consider me for the DVD.)

  18. I had EMDR back in 2005-2006. I can't remember exactly when. My husband and I went to a therapist for some marital counseling, and after getting our histories, she separated us to speak to us individually. She felt that part of the reason for the problems in my marriage was relating to an incident I referred to in my childhood. I had 5-6 sessions of EMDR, and yes, the childhood incident no longer has the power over me that it used to have. I could go on, but the rest is just details. The real point is that EMDR is incredibly effective. I cannot tell you how much it helped me, and how it saved me from YEARS of therapy.

    Michael, thank you for sharing this with us, and I will look forward to seeing the movie. (Don't include me in the drawing; use it for someone else.)

  19. Thanks Leslie and Lora -- for sharing your stories.


  20. I'm very curious indeed. Trauma relief sounds helpful!

    Theresa @

  21. I've had EMDR also, and it was an extremely transformative experience for me. It's great there is now a movie to help articulate what has been difficult to explain to friends. Like Dianne, many are skeptics..."it's too good to be true." A bit of weird science to the outside world... but being able to watch how others have been helped so dramatically is amazing. I'm looking forward to passing it on to friends and family.