Using EMDR to Overcome Trauma

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a relatively new form of therapy that’s helpful to people who have experienced trauma or a disturbing life experience that is interfering with their mental health. What’s more, EMDR works much faster than conventional psychotherapy, allowing many people to experience relief in just a few sessions. At Westmont Family Counseling Ministries in Johnstown, two of our therapists are certified in this effective and increasingly popular technique.

What is EMDR?

EMDR was discovered by Francine Shapiro, who noticed that certain eye movements seemed to relieve disturbing thoughts associated with trauma. She published a groundbreaking study on the principles of EMDR in 1989. The technique proved to be so effective that it was adopted by many therapists, and quickly evolved into a set of standardized protocols. A professional association, the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA), was founded in 1995 to promote the new therapy, and set the standards and requirements for training and certification for clinicians.

Unlike most forms of psychotherapy for trauma, EMDR focuses less on the trauma itself and more on the disturbing emotions that occur as a consequence of the trauma. With EMDR, the person being treated is asked to focus on the memories and associations of the traumatic event while the therapist guides them through specific types of eye movements or hand tapping.

EMDR is primarily used for any type of post traumatic stress, or any type of mental health issue that involves powerful negative emotions – such as a dog phobia caused by a bad experience with a dog. But since its inception, the use of EMDR has expanded, and it is now recognized as a way to treat a variety of psychological problems.

How does it work?

People who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events sometimes have uncontrollable thoughts about the event – including flashbacks and nightmares. In other words, trauma can interfere with the way the brain normally processes information and negative emotions, so that the trauma remains almost as fresh and as upsetting as when it occurred.

The use of EMDR interrupts this cycle and allows the person to work through the negative emotion associated with the trauma, so that uncontrollable thoughts disappear and the memories are not as emotionally charged. The person still remembers the trauma, but with much less distress.

For example, a rape victim might be struggling with the persistent belief that she is responsible for what happened, and that she has been permanently degraded – even though she knows such beliefs are irrational. Small incidents in daily life might trigger these thoughts and beliefs in a way that interferes with her ability to move forward. EMDR therapy can help her discard these beliefs, and instead realize that she has survived and is strong. She will no longer be haunted by persistent thoughts about the rape and will be able to look back on it without being re-traumatized. In short, the rape will always be a part of her life history, but it loses its power over her.

Although there is a growing body of evidence demonstrating that EMDR works, no one has been able to prove exactly how it works. A leading theory is that the strong negative emotions associated with trauma prevent information from being processed by the brain, so that normal associations with other thoughts and memories become impossible – which would explain why the trauma remains fresh. The eye movements are thought to help facilitate these normal associations, which neutralizes the negative emotions.

Some researchers have even theorized that EMDR is similar to what occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the phase of sleep when the sleeper’s brain is most active – and dreams are most vivid. The purpose of REM sleep is not completely understood, but researchers have shown that this the stage of sleep that is most associated with feeling rested.

Who uses EMDR therapy?

EMDR is recognized as an effective treatment by the American Psychiatric Association, World Health Organization, and the US Department of Health and Human Services. Even the Department of Defense has recognized its usefulness in treating veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More than 100,000 clinicians use this technique, and millions of people have been helped.

What should I expect from EMDR therapy?

The goal of EMDR therapy is help you process completely the traumatic experiences that are negatively impacting your mental health, and to introduce new associations that are more positive and appropriate.

There are eight defined phases of treatment, as follows:

  • History and treatment planning
  • Preparation, where you and a clinician develop a trusting relationship
  • Assessment, where you define the negative feelings associated with the trauma and positive ones to replace them
  • Desensitization, where the clinician will guide you through the eye movement technique
  • Installation, to reinforce the positive feelings
  • Body scan, where you test to see if you can think about the trauma without the overpowering negative feelings that once accompanied the memory
  • Closure, which occurs at every session
  • Re-evaluation, which also occurs at every session

The amount of time the treatment will take depends on a variety of factors, including the severity of the trauma. But generally speaking, EMDR provides relief much faster than conventional talk therapy on its own.

EMDR therapy at WFCM

Westmont Family Counseling Ministries in Johnstown has professional counselors who are licensed in EMDR through EMDRIA, and have a great deal of experience in using the technique to help clients. In fact, one of our most seasoned counselors, Frank Colosimo, has been certified in the technique since 1997, when it was still quite new. Brad Croyle, a counselor in the middle of his career, has been certified for five years.

If you’re in the Johnstown area and are interested in EMDR, let us know when you call for an appointment. Either Frank or Brad will be happy to discuss the possibility of using EMDR as part of your individualized counseling experience.

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