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EMDR is a research-supported treatment for healing disturbing and traumatic memories, whether the incident occurred a month ago or decades ago. It was initially found to be effective in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, since it’s discovery in 1988, has been applied to many difficulties for which people seek professional help. EMDR has been used to treat depression, low self-esteem, anger, anxiety, intimacy problems, complicated grief, phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictions, fear of public speaking and test anxiety. EMDR has also been used to enhance emotional resources such as confidence and determination and to achieve peak performance.  EMDR is a powerful tool and should only be implemented by those licensed mental health professionals who have participated in approved training programs.

Traumatic incidents involve life-threatening circumstances such as combat, assault, rape, domestic violence, child abuse, accidents, and natural disasters.  However, mental health professionals are realizing that what is traumatic for one person may not be for another.  Trauma is defined more by the effect on the person than the type of event.  If the event deeply jolted and damaged the person’s sense of safety, self-worth or personal power, then it was traumatic. For example, children have been traumatized by being bullied, rejected, caught in a humiliating situation, exposed to family conflict, or stood up by a divorced parent who was supposed to visit. Adults have experienced psychological damage from divorce, sudden deaths of loved ones, and being treated insensitively during a time of vulnerability.  Although some people are able to work through a trauma or loss and come out stronger, others get stuck and develop highly distressing symptoms that persist relentlessly, unless successfully treated by a mental health professional. Almost every psychological complaint can be traced to earlier life experiences, which can be healed.

Classic signs of PTSD include the following:  hypervigilance, being easily startled, flashbacks of the event, intrusive disturbing thoughts or images, nightmares, and avoidance of anything related to the event.  There are many people who do not have these symptoms, however, and still can be considered traumatized.  Their present day perceptions, experiences, behavior and relationships are ruled by past memories and the associated compelling beliefs, emotions and physical sensations.  Without warning people become flooded with feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, rage, shame, guilt, fear, inadequacy, jealousy, humiliation or envy in circumstances that don’t warrant such reactions.  People may no longer consciously connect the disturbing emotions and body sensations with the past events because the overwhelming nature of the memory has caused them to disconnect their awareness.

There are two ways of handling an upsetting experience.  Ideally, the person will go through the details, thoughts and feelings about the memory over and over until, little by little, the memory is processed, mastered and no longer disturbing. When upsetting memories instead are pushed out of consciousness, there is only temporary relief for the victim, as the memories keep their power to haunt and torment. Some people may develop physical complaints from the trauma because, as a trauma specialist has said, “the body keeps the score.”  Headaches, digestive problems, sleep difficulties, pain, aches, rashes, fatigue, and lowered resistance and immunity, often are residue and evidence of unresolved trauma and loss.

EMDR accesses, releases and metabolizes the traumatic memory that has been stored and locked in the person’s nervous system.  It helps “jumpstart” the client’s natural healing process and completes the processing of the event so that it can finally be resolved. EMDR clients come out of the experience with appropriate and healthy beliefs about themselves and feelings of safety and calm in their bodies.  For example, instead of just believing intellectually “I’m a good person,” “I did the best I could” or “I am safe,” people treated with EMDR come to believe these statements at the gut level.  This makes all the difference in the world. The healing and shifts that take place with EMDR occur at the physiological and emotional level, as well as the level of reason and insight.

Some people who have heard a little about EMDR may think that all that is involved is waving a finger back and forth in front of someone's eyes.  (The initials stand for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).  In actuality, it is a complex and comprehensive approach and one that requires clinical judgment and ongoing consultation to ensure mastery.  A simplified description of what occurs, however, is this.  The client is helped to identify a target memory and its associated most disturbing image, negative self belief, emotions, body sensations and degree of disturbance.  The client begins the desensitization phase by being aware of this information package and, simultaneously, the alternating stimulation provided by the clinician.  This would entail either eye movements side to side (the original form of stimulation), sounds to alternating ears, or taps to alternating palms or knees.  The client is instructed to "let whatever happens, happen and just notice whatever comes up", whether images, thoughts, urges, emotions or body sensations.  A typical session alternates back and forth between brief periods of inner awareness and briefer periods of updating the clinician with what is being experienced.

The inner wisdom of the mind will lead the client wherever he/she needs to go to "digest" all the information connected to the memory.  The therapist has various procedures and protocols to follow to ensure the client's safety, keep the process moving and enable the client to get the most out of the experience.  Throughout the process, the client maintains control, however, and interference by the EMDR practitioner is kept to the minimum, as this is a naturalistic and client-centered method.

If you would like to learn more about EMDR and how it might be helpful to you, I can provide more information personally and through recommended readings. 

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