EMDR Therapy to Cope with Test Anxiety


“Imagine peeling a lemon,” Sarah Wells guides me while I sit in her office. I visualize a highlighter-colored lemon, its white rind curling in my palm. The soft spray of citrus scent with every peel permeates its atmosphere, making my palms sticky.

“You take a slice,” she continues, “And firmly bite into it. Most people will find that they salivate at that description.”

Blushing, I laugh out loud from embarrassment because that is exactly what has happened to me. Practically Pavlovian, the exercise makes me feel easily influenced. The mind can trigger the body to act on thoughts alone, even if the situation is made-up.

Sarah is a licensed clinical social worker who is working on her certification towards EMDR therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. “A method of bilateral stimulation,” as Sarah describes.

Dual Attention Stimulation

Bilateral stimulation can be visual, auditory, or tactile stimuli that occur in a rhythmic left-right pattern. Sarah uses a dual attention stimulation (DAS), a small device with two pulsating chords. Other therapists may utilize lights, soft tapping on the arms, or harmonic sounds to facilitate EMDR therapy.  

Video example of EMDR therapy using harmonics.

Sarah sets up scenarios where “You’re halfway in the past and halfway here.” With gentle guidance she asks you to focus on a stress inducing memory while holding onto the buzzing pulsars. “The triggers don’t have to be triggers all your life,” the idea being that bilateral stimulation can help those feeling frozen in trauma.

EMDR therapy is recommended as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in the guidelines of organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, and the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. Its efficacy is apparent from self-reported relief by users, but its biological studies are still ongoing.

Stress and anxiety are first processed and communicated through the brain via our amygdala and hippocampus. If a mountain lion were to jump out at you on a hiking path, the amygdala decides whether your heart should start racing or if your stomach should clench. The hippocampus organizes the threatening experience as an event worthy of memory (note to self: don’t go on this path again) and determines if it’s past or present.

People suffering from PTSD often have an overactive amygdala and lower functioning hippocampus. They feel the stress and adrenaline regardless of whether an actual threat is posed, and the hippocampus is unable to reassure you if the situation is past or present. A hiker with mountain lion related PTSD could have a panic attack on a hiking trail, even if they’re logically aware that mountain lions are not native to that area.

Supporters of EMDR have conceived a number of explanations as to how it works: relaxation akin to meditation, syncing of the brain’s hemispheres, distraction from external stimuli, and imitation of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Sarah compared it to walking; a healthy exercise that synchronizes the brain.

Discovered by Francine Shapiro in the late 1980s, she first came up with the idea as she walked through a park focusing on a particular problem. Francine noticed she felt more relaxed as she moved her eyes rhythmically from left to right. The experience led her to explore more systematically and publish a controlled, randomized study with 70 trauma victims.  

Francine Shapiro, Ph.D.

Francine Shapiro is now a senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, director of the EMDR Institute, and creator of the nonprofit EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, which provides free training and treatment to unprivileged populations worldwide.

On a purely anecdotal note, I don’t have mountain lion related PTSD. I came across Sarah’s flyer for free sessions to help with test anxiety and academic related stress.

I held the buzzing DAS while we recounted anxiety scenarios. As she cautiously informed before we started, EMDR therapy was difficult and emotional for me. I imagine it would be more so for someone suffering from PTSD.

Regardless of what brought you there in the first place, therapy can often be an arduous, long road. Sarah Well is a skilled and gentle therapist, and her site can be found at www.sarahwellslcsw.com. I intend to complete my final session with her.