EMDR: When Other Therapies Don’t Help
Dr. Laurel A. Sills

“Dear Dr. Sills, What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Recovery) is an excellent tool to help clients with trauma from childhood abuse and ridicule, sexual abuse, rape, accidents, death of a loved one, and other types of PTSD, resolve fear, anxiety, reactivity, avoidance and other symptoms much faster than using talk therapy alone.

EMDR is short-hand for a type of therapy developed by psychologist, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in l987 called “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” This long name came from her observation that quickly alternating eye movements made in conjunction with reviewing problematic past events can relatively quickly unlock painful traumas and issues that have been stored unresolved in the nervous system for years. The unlocking of the memories allows for our own brain to process the information (with the support and aid of a trained professional only) and resolve it by making us less sensitive to the hurt by reprocessing our negative beliefs about ourselves that resulted from our traumas, and by replacing the negative beliefs with more functional, self-affirming ones.

Sometimes, we can talk about painful memories and feelings over and over, even with the best of therapists, and still feel just as upset by them as we did prior to speaking. The theory behind EMDR is that when “trauma” occurs, it gets stored in our nervous system with the original sounds, feelings, pictures, smells, and thoughts at a cellular level. When we talk about these memories, we don’t always access all the information on all sensory levels, and thus cannot resolve the entire trauma. Somehow, stimulating the nervous system with bilateral eye movements, or tones, or tapping can unlock our defenses that keep these traumas “hot” and allow us to finally access them for resolving.

Traumas are broadly defined to be anything from obvious big events to any type of subtle or repeated interaction that can cause emotional pain. A rape, a beating, being victimized, robbed, in an accident, in a war, seeing someone die, losing a loved one, having a near-death experience are all obvious traumas. Most of us have interactions growing up or in adult life that cause self-doubt, hurt, self-esteem problems, emotional pain, concern that we are not good enough, not lovable, not okay, not smart or not something. These things may be the result of repeated times of feeling ignored, feeling forgotten, feeling betrayed, feeling cut-off, feeling second. Shapiro and EMDR therapists call these types of traumas “small‘t’” traumas. These commonly occur in dysfunctional families, relationships or work environments.

EMDR can treat many types of problems. First, it was used to treat big “T” traumas. It has had more published research to support its use and efficacy in the treatment of trauma than any other methods used. Positive therapeutic results have been reported now for both “big T” and “small t” traumas. It is helpful in treating PTSD, war veterans, anxiety disorders, stress and loss, and other problems. Many people who have not had success in resolving presenting complaints for treatment in prior therapies are finding significant improvement and lasting results with EMDR. (References for studies can be obtained from the EMDR Institute at PO Box 51010, Pacific Grove, California, 93950. Or Fax (408) 647-9881. Also, a book called EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. and Margot Silk Forrest is available and gives case examples of people helped with this approach.)

I have been certified in EMDR and have taken both Level I and II training. I have been most impressed by the results I have seen in the clients whom I have treated. I have used this with panic attacks, chronic pain, compulsive behaviors and survivors of big t and little t traumas including sexual abuse and repeated emotional or physical abuse. I have seen people resolve long-standing traumatic memories and maintain the results in one 90 minute session. Typically, it is a one-time trauma that resolves most rapidly. Repeated subtle traumas require many sessions of reprocessing, as one memory often feeds into another memory and each one must be desensitized, reprocessed and then re-worked with the installation of a positive belief.

Proper use of this therapy is also formatted to focus on the past, present and future so that old unresolved traumas that are unknowingly feeding into today’s problems are resolved and then future concerns are also addressed. Furthermore, processing typically occurs between sessions (like other therapies) and clients must keep logs of feelings, thoughts, memories and levels of disturbances so that the therapist can assess that the next visit. EMDR therapy must only be performed by a trained professional who has taken Level I or both Level I and Level II training from a professional trainer certified by the EMDR Institute. It should not be tried on friends or on oneself as the reactions that can arise cannot be managed or treated by oneself or by an untrained person. The therapy itself is not useful without the trained skill of the clinician. Looking for a clinician with excellent training, credentials and experience in general therapy is a must, in addition to having EMDR training.

For information on who can provide this type of therapy in your area, you can call the EMDR institute at (408)372-3900.

This article is written by Dr. Laurel A. Sills, a Fully Licensed Clinical Psychologist who provides short-term therapy for adults in individual, couples or group therapy in W. Bloomfield, Michigan. Dr. Sills completed Level I and II EMDR training in l998 and is certified to utilize this technique. She has found it to be an excellent tool in working through issues in treatment. You can reach her at (248) 788-4230 for more information.