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EMDR – An Effective Tool In Psychotherapy
By Deanna Chaplin, M.F.T.

Jenny is a bright, attractive and articulate woman full of life, love, and hope. At 33, she is finishing a post graduate degree and plans to marry this spring. Hardly the person you would think of as a devastated victim of childhood incest. Yet she is such a survivor and six months ago would have fit the stereotype picture most of us hold of incest victims. For years, Jenny suffered from chronic anxiety, nausea, depression and fatigue. Her life was an emotional roller coaster. She would struggle to free herself from her demons only to be triggered back into depression and the symptoms that prevented her from living a satisfying life. Emotional relationships with men or women were difficult and, when triggered by trauma memories, she found it hard even to do simple tasks. Going out of the house for a walk or standing in line at the grocery store became a suffocating experience for her. With over 10 years of therapy, countless self-help books and personal growth seminars, Jenny still could not free herself from her past… that is until six months ago when she began a new therapeutic procedure.

Called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing treatment, or EMDR for short, the technique helps trauma victims unblock the nervous system and allow the brain to process the experience. For Jenny, as with many others who suffer from post traumatic stress, there appears to be a split between the mind’s and the body’s reaction to any stimulus that reminds the individual of the trauma. For example, victims traumatized in an earthquake may go through deep emotional and physical reactions when they feel the ground begin to shake from a truck driving by. Mentally they know it is a truck not an earthquake but emotionally and physiologically they react as if it were.

Why this occurs is still unclear. There is growing evidence to suggest the trauma experience (with all its emotional intensity and physiological responses) is stored differently in the brain than normal memory. When a trauma occurs it seems to get locked in the central nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts and feelings. As a consequence it is isolated from the normal information processing that takes place within the brain. This may explain why trauma memories are so persistent and so devastating to the individual. It may also explain the difficulties of traditional therapeutic techniques in healing trauma victims.

EMDR was first developed in the 1980’s by Dr. Francine Shapiro. According to it’s founder, “The eye movements we use in EMDR seem to unlock the central nervous system and allow the brain to process the experience. That may be what is happening in REM or dream sleep - the eye movements help to process the unconscious material.

Since 1989 tens of thousands of clinicians and scores of clinics have been trained in its use world-wide. And over a million people have been treated using this highly successful protocol. EMDR has had more published reports and research to support it than any other method used in the treatment of trauma. Nevertheless, there remains a deep controversy over the procedure. While some remain skeptical as to its usefulness, the biggest controversy is how EMDR works. There are several theories, but most rest on the idea that the brain stores trauma memory differently than normal memories. And because of this, it is difficult for the brain to processes these memories. The mind/body, in its attempt to heal will keep bringing these memories up for processing. Unfortunately, because of the way trauma memories are stored, the brain is unable to process the physical and emotional memories of the trauma with adaptive/healing information. So they remain stuck in a cycle of remembering and suppressing. Like a thorn stuck in your finger, your body tries to isolate and remove the thorn but the result is a festering of the wound. Healing is unable to take place.

According to some theories, EMDR dislodges these traumatic and displaced memories, allowing the brain to finally process them with adaptive information. The memories no longer result in emotional or physical reactions and the trauma is eliminated. The processed trauma experience is then stored properly where it is available for further processing if more adaptive/healing information becomes available.

While we may not totally understand how EMDR works, the procedures for using it are relatively simple. You are awake, alert, and in control throughout the session. After a thorough consultation with a specially trained therapist, a specific incident, thought, feeling, or bodily sensation is targeted for work. The therapist, using hand movements, sound, or simple touch, guides you through the process. Feedback about imagery, feelings, thoughts, and body sensations are given to the therapist throughout the procedure in order to adjust the treatment. It is important to remember it is your own brain that will be doing the healing and you are the one in control. The therapist is only helping to process. Results are typically seen very quickly and, when used in conjunction with other therapeutic techniques, can produce a powerful result. In fact, the more adaptive/healing information that you have acquired in therapy prior to using EMDR, the quicker and more profound are the results.

EMDR is just one of many therapeutic procedures used by licensed therapists in treating trauma and stress. It is not a therapy but a therapeutic tool. Because it does not require an intimate dialogue between patient and therapist, it can be used with a very wide variety of people, from children to senior citizens. It is not, however, a replacement for traditional psychotherapy nor is it a “cure all” for those suffering from emotional pain. What it is, is a new and powerful tool that promises to help people suffering from trauma.

For further information about EMDR please click here.