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Neutralizing a painful memory

A new psychiatric protocol controls rapid eye movement to help patients get over trauma, stress–and even skin diseases
/ 05:25 AM January 09, 2018


It started out as an unorthodox psychotherapy for patients with trauma from war, physical attacks, accidents and extreme grief.

Unlike therapy where the patient opens up to the psychiatrist, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a protocol that engages the patient’s rapid eye movements to diminish the impact of the trauma.


Still in its infancy in the Philippines, EMDR has been used by a doctor as a tool to help patients with skin diseases, depression, disturbing memories, stress and bipolar disorder.

Dr. Antonio C. Sison is the only physician in the country, and one of only a few in the world, who is both a board certified psychiatrist and a dermatologist. His practice integrates the interplay between mental and physical being.

He explains that EMDR is not talk therapy, in which the sessions focus on searching for the root conflict in a past relationship. On the other hand, EMDR is a step-by-step protocol that persuades the patient to briefly recall the disturbing situation while the patient experiences some kind of stimulation on both sides of the body. This stimulation is believed to defuse the emotional intensity of the painful memory.

Sison compares the process to tuning up a computer.
“The brain is the hardware and the mind is the software. Painful or traumatic experiences are like glitches in the software. The software still works, but not at the optimum level. When you remove the glitch through EMDR by neutralizing the traumatic memory, the software will work much better,” Sison says.

‘Safe place’

Initially, the patient chooses the painful memory.
He or she is then guided to imagine a “safe place,” a tranquil but generic location. “This is an important element in EMDR. The safe place will act as a ‘balm’ when the patient may not tolerate the painful feelings of the past trauma. He or she will then be shifted to the safe place,” Sison explains.

The patient goes on to describe the intensity of the negative thoughts and emotions that arise when the painful memory is brought up.

Desensitization is a repeated process of reducing the negative reaction to the painful memory. The therapist will swing a wand like pendulum in front of the patient. An alternative method is to tap the patient’s hands.

While recollecting the memory, the patient’s eyes will follow the wand movements or the tapping of the hands. This method allows the patient to calm down and consequently ease the negative emotions.


The patient also does a body scan to spot if any sensation, such as muscle tension or shortness of breath, comes while recalling the painful memory, or if the body starts to loosen up in the process. Once the patient relaxes, he or she slowly begins to look at the trauma more objectively.

As the patient’s condition progresses, the psychiatrist reinforces the positive thoughts and feelings, until the former can recall the disturbing or traumatic event without feeling any emotional charge.

Sison points out that there is a difference between feeling nothing (as in numb) and having neutral feelings toward the trauma: “Sometimes people cope with painful memories by suppressing the emotions, and claim that they have ‘no feelings.’ ‘Neutral feelings’ signify that the person has feelings, but these are neither positive nor negative, but neutral.”

In the closure and debriefing of the experience, the patient is made to review if there was any personal shift during the therapy, such as improved relationships or changes in attitude and behavior.

The final session creates a positive future scenario on how the patient can positively deal with the past.

Sison says it takes an
average of 10 one-hour sessions to deal with one painful memory. Research reveals that the negative effect of the memory or trauma is reduced permanently.

Successful cases

As a dermatologist, he has used EMDR on patients with psoriasis or flaking of the skin and skin asthma. Two patients with severe psoriasis showed improvement in their psychological well-being. One of them reported reduction of skin lesions and psoriatic arthritis pain.

Fellow dermatologists have referred patients with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a behavior characterized by extreme cleanliness that is imposed on others. One patient’s OCD symptoms were reduced to five percent of their former level.

Another patient with chronic depression could not tolerate high doses of antidepressants. The medication still caused her mood to nosedive. After finishing EMDR sessions, the patient said her mood was lighter and that episodes of depression were shorter and milder.

Sison has handled executives who claim to have become less reactive to stressful business dealings, and who can make better business decisions after EMDR. Some have noticed they are calmer in driving.

One chief executive officer initially consulted him due to stress from marital discord. Sison said he does not do marriage therapy, but he could help the CEO counteract the negative emotions linked to a disturbing memory in the relationship.

“Painful memories typically evoke negative emotions which, in turn, bring about a negative frame of mind. I could neutralize the negative feelings of the painful memories. From there, they would be in a better frame of mind to reassess the marital situation. The goal is not to save the marriage, but to develop a clearer state of mind that could assess the relationship,” Sison says.

Two years ago, the CEO and his wife could not tolerate each other. After EMDR sessions, the couple feel more comfortable with each other but are still working on their marriage.

Ultimately, Sison hopes that Filipinos see the value of mental well-being, and how it affects one’s body.

“In dermatology clinics, individuals are wiling to pay for whitening their skin, or undergo procedures to achieve flawless beauty,” he says. “People essentially do not value mental wellness because it is not seen. They can see dramatic changes in the skin and put a value on this. How much is the value of neutralizing a chronic painful memory? Would it be worth a designer bag?

“You would need to remove emotional toxins of past memories which would reveal an improved version of yourself. Now how much is that worth to you?” –CONTRIBUTED

Contact St Luke’s QC at 723 0101 loc 5707 for details on eye movement desensitization and reprocessing protocol.

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