Exploring alternate ways to deal with trauma

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Mind matters, Colchester Weekly News

I recently received EMDR training to add to my skill set of interventions to offer clients.  What is EMDR, you might ask?  It is the acronym for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. This treatment was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro to help those with trauma related disorders such as, PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), whose natural ability to process traumatic experiences was compromised. The hypothesis is that EMDR bilateral stimulation (eye movements, audio beeps, tactile pulses) replicates REM sleep, which is presumed to assist the brain in processing the information it received during the day. The idea being that the eye movements, or other forms of bilateral stimulation, add to the therapy’s effectiveness by evoking neurological and physiological changes to aid in the reprocessing of the traumatic memories.

Personally, my skepticism about the treatment had been a bias causing me to previously dismiss EMDR - the word “hokey” would pop in my mind.  What sold me to give EMDR a try was the feedback from a colleague of mine.  She is a tell-it-like-it-is type of person.  She too was a skeptic, until she had the training as a job requirement and saw the results first-hand.  My colleague’s experience was that rather than needing several sessions to get the intended result of trauma resolution using cognitive behavioural methods, it could happen in one session using EMDR.  She became a believer.

We all experience events in our life that cause emotional injuries, whether it is being bullied on the schoolyard playground (small “t” trauma), or the victim of a violent assault (big “T” trauma).  In response to those events, we have a number of emotional (grief, fear), cognitive (“I cannot handle this”), and physiological (heart palpitations, flushed face) reactions.  What differs between individuals is the processing of such events.  Those who develop PTSD, anxiety, depressive symptoms or low self-esteem from these life events are presumed to have not fully “digested” their experience and are “stuck.”  

EMDR is based on the idea that the adaptive information processing (AIP) has been disrupted for the individual whether it is via a small “t” or a big “T” trauma.  The increased arousal level stores the experience in the memory in an unprocessed form.  The memory is implicit rather than explicit, meaning that rather than it just being a memory, it affects us in our current life at an unconscious level as a contaminate.  EMDR allows the associated neurobiological channels, linked to the memory, to be processed (digested properly) and cleared.  While it appears that the core issue causing a person to be “stuck” is a self-referent negative belief (i.e. “I am inadequate”), the way to access that is through free association, which is actually a psychodynamic technique (think Freud). Exposure techniques are also employed as the individual recalls the event that causes emotional distress, thus allowing desensitization to file the memory properly.

We are all unique beings, so having a variety of tools is imperative. One size does not fit all.  Some clients need dialectical behaviour therapy interventions, because the emotion regulation systems need strengthening.  Some clients need behavioural activation methods because their “get up and go has got up and gone.” Others need cognitive processing tools because they are “stuck” in distorted thoughts; while others need exposure techniques to rewire their interpretation of experience.  EMDR is one more tool to help clients.  The more we learn about neuropsychology, the evidence supports that the neurobiological channels in the brain are changed through various psychological and behavioural interventions.

In addition, the research findings support significant empirical results for EMDR beyond use with PTSD.  EMDR is being successfully used with anxiety disorders (panic, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias), addictions, bipolar disorder, and psychosis, as was presented by founder Dr. Francine Shapiro at the EMDRIA 2012 annual conference.

Jeannette Kennedy, M.Sc. is a registered psychologist with a private practice located in Stewiacke, N.S.  She can be reached at kennedyj@eastlink.ca, 902-957-1987, or http://jeannettekennedy.com.

Organizations: AIP, EMDRIA 2012

Geographic location: Colchester, Stewiacke

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  • Patti Levin
    April 25, 2013 - 14:55

    I'm a therapist who uses EMDR as my primary psychotherapy treatment and want to mention that anyone can use some of the techniques in Dr. Shapiro’s great book “Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR.” Dr. Shapiro is the founder/creator of EMDR but all the proceeds from the book go to two charities: the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program and the EMDR Research Foundation). Anyway, the book is terrific. It’s an easy read, helps you understand what’s “pushing” your feelings and behavior, helps you connect the dots from past experiences to current life. Also teaches readers lots of helpful techniques that can be used immediately and that are also used during EMDR therapy to calm disturbing thoughts and feelings. http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Past-Your-Self-Help-Techniques/dp/159486425X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1366839144&sr=1-1&keywords=getting+past+your+past

  • Michael Kerrigan
    April 25, 2013 - 14:33

    Good point one size does not fit all in diagnosing PTS. Consider another approach of sharing the results of those warriors who exhibit post traumatic growth following traumatic injuries. Just as the Marines who recently visited the amputees at Mass General Hospital, so too will stories of those exhibiting growth after adversity will offer hope to those on their PTS journey.