August 20, 2013: EMDR Helps Ease Traumatic Memories

by Audrey Watjen, M.S.W., LICSW,
Pastoral Counseling Services Psychotherapist

The mental health profession loves acronyms. “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” is a mouthful so it is just referred to as EMDR. EMDR was developed by psychologist, Francine Shapiro, PhD, in 1987, following a walk in the park where she noticed that her rapid eye movements lessened her disturbing negative thoughts. When she began exploring this revelation, she found that other people also had the same response to eye movements. However, it seemed that eye movements alone did not have a lasting effect, but adding some structured thought process with it demonstrated significant improvement. She then developed structured EMDR techniques. Her research found that EMDR was particularly helpful for people with traumatic disturbing memories, especially individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder. EMDR has also shown some usefulness with individuals with other stress and anxiety disorders.

How does EMDR work?

Our memories are linked in networks that contain related thoughts, images, emotions, and sensations. We know that when a person is very upset, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. Simple upsetting events are usually resolved through thinking about it as well as during the period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. With trauma, memory of the event is dysfunctionally stored with many elements still unprocessed. With EMDR eye movements, the brain makes the associations and connections needed to integrate and digest the disturbing memory. This allows our memory networks to take disturbing events and make the appropriate connections that allow a return of emotional equilibrium.

EMDR treatment is generally short term and may be used within standard “talking” therapy, in conjunction with “talking” therapy with a separate therapist, or as a treatment all by itself. It has been used with people with all kinds of traumas and anxieties, including someone who has been in an automobile accident, someone who has experienced physical or sexual abuse, someone who has been mauled by a vicious dog, and victims of natural disasters. To help demonstrate how EMDR works, below are two fictional examples.

Example 1:

Martha is a 68 year old woman who lives alone in a house on the corner of a very busy street which has had several car accidents. One lovely sunny day, as she sat on her porch another accident happened but this time the car came right through her porch into her house, barely missing her. Since then she had been afraid of leaving her house and avoided the corner of the house where the accident happened. After a few EMDR sessions, she still has some anxiety, but is able to leave her home and has the full use of her house again. She is also able to enjoy her front porch again.

Example 2:

Linda is a 37 year old married mother of a 12 year old daughter. Because of her anxiety going over bridges (even a short highway overpass), she was forced to avoid highways and major roads. She had to limit her visits to her mother who lives in the Boston area and took 45 minutes to get to her job which was only 10 minutes from her house. After three EMDR sessions, she was able to drive to work on the highway and had more time to spend with her husband and daughter.

Pastoral Counseling Services is fortunate to have three staff therapists who have been specially trained in this technique. If you think EMDR might help you or someone you love with a traumatic experience or anxiety, contact Dr. Cal Genzel, PCS Clinical Director, at 603.627.2702 ext.116.