June 6, 2022

What is EMDR psychotherapy? Who can it help?

By Dana Elken Terrell, LCSW, EAC

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, is a comprehensive therapy approach that has enough research backing to earn the acceptance of the World Health Organization and many other US and international associations. Most practical of all, it has earned coverage by health insurance companies, as an evidence -based practice.

OK, but “eye movement” for a psychotherapy approach?

Yes, it sounds weird, weird enough to be the butt of many night time talk shows in the 90s. However, few are laughing now. At last count, there are 38 randomized comparison studies showing EMDR to be equal to, or better than, the gold standard of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of trauma. And the studies of veterans and teens have found that they prefer EMDR as they don't need to talk much about their traumatic or distressing experiences. Plus, EMDR doesn’t require homework like CBT does.

Francine Shapiro, the developer of EMDR therapy, discovered during a walk in the park, while dwelling on disturbing news she had just received, that without intention she had spontaneously made saccadic eye movements. Her distress had decreased quickly and significantly. She had been so preoccupied with the distress that she didn’t know how that had happened, but she knew that nothing in her life had resolved so quickly before. So she retraced her steps along the walk. She “replayed” the scene and became conscious of the eye movements. Being a PhD candidate in psychology at Stanford, she wanted to investigate: was this just a quirky thing that helped her and no one else? She immediately tried it on friends and colleagues at her Stanford office. They reported their current disturbance of the day eased up, too!

Then she decided to research those with significant bad memories, PTSD sufferers of war combat, or victims of rape or molestation. Her 1987 research demonstrated that for those with a single traumatic event, 80% could become free of a PTSD diagnosis after 1-3 ninety-minute EMDR sessions. This high success rate was pretty unbelievable for a psychotherapy technique. Hence, the joking. But it attracted many other researchers who have not just validated it for PTSD, but also for many other psychological conditions.

I am writing to you as a lawyer, because lawyers have become more at risk for psychological distress, addiction and suicide. Twenty years ago, lawyers had a 1 in 5 chance of mental illness or addiction. Now it is a 1 in 3 chance. Please pay attention. This is not just for others in your life, such as clients, associates, friends and family members. This may be for YOU.

But don’t ask, “What is wrong with me, or what is wrong with you?” Shapiro, reporting on all the new research for so many populations and conditions, concluded that we do no longer need to ask “What is wrong with you?” but simply “What happened to you?” This non-blame approach helps people stop judging themselves. We EMDR therapists want to know: which memories of distressing events are still stored in the brain, undigested, with stuck negative self -beliefs? All this leads to psychological diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, panic, phobia, addiction, chronic pain (research has demonstrated that EMDR can resolve “unresolvable” phantom limb pain). When there isn’t effective treatment, people have a tendency to identify with a negative diagnosis.

EMDR helps the brain shift the way it stores memories. If people are stuck, their memories are stuck in something close to their original experience. Flashbacks are “frozen in time” so to speak, with the attending visual images or auditory tapes, physical sensations, emotional distress, negative beliefs such as “I’m worthless, bad, powerless, or not good enough.” People with these flashbacks feel a bit crazy. But they just have a “brain storage” problem.

EMDR helps the brain to desensitize or “digest” those memories until they fade into the long- term memory, free of vivid details. When that happens, people spontaneously see themselves in a much more positive light. They regain their natural resilience and strength. Clients proceeding in their EMDR therapy frequently say things like, “I’m more myself, but a better version of myself.”

Bad experiences can make people feel like they are not themselves. And that feels frightening. That thought can trigger powerlessness, even suicide.

If that sounds familiar to you, or to what you hear from anyone who trusted you enough to share their experience or feelings with you, please give this article to them. They can gain a whole new productive direction for their life.

The next step is to search for a competent EMDR therapist. Since EMDR has become so popular, there are training organizations offering quickie courses of low standards. The therapists do not even know they are inadequately trained. They often believe they are “Certified” because they got a certificate of completion from the course.

Do not take a haphazard approach with your (or anyone else’s) vulnerable emotional/mental health. Please seek an EMDRIA-Certified EMDR therapist. EMDRIA is the EMDR International Association. Someone certified through EMDRIA has taken 20 hours of personal consultation (or possibly 10 hours of group consultation as part of the 20 hours) to get thoroughly familiar with the full 8 phase protocol. Therapists who do not understand and practice the full 8 phases can cause psychological damage instead of benefit. Avoid them. At the very least, they waste your time and money

The question to ask is: “Can you show me your framed EMDRIA document demonstrating that you are Certified by EMDRIA? How many hours of consultation did you take to earn the certificate? (Right answer: 20). How many hours of EMDRIAapproved continuing education courses do you take every 2 years to maintain your Certification?” Right answer: 12.

If you get accurate answers, then book an appointment and see if you are a good fit for this therapist. It is ok to shop for a therapist.

Dana Elken Terrell, LCSW, EAC has been an EMDR therapist since 1997, certified since 2003, and an EMDRIA-Approved Consultant since 2007. Since then she has integrated her previous specialty in increasing emotional maturity in all kinds of relationships (Bowen Family Systems Theory) with her EMDR specialty. She’s in the process of research studies to demonstrate the value of her Integrative Bowen and EMDR (iBE) protocol for both individuals and groups. She’s also written a relationship self-help book on her integration: “When I Do Relationships SO RIGHT How Do They go SO WRONG.” It is available on audiobook, print and eBook from Amazon. She is in process on a second book called “A Vast Love Story” in which each chapter will offer tips for different kinds of relationships, such as your relationship with:

• Yourself

• Friends

• Romantic Partner

• Nuclear Family

• Extended Family

• Neighbors

• Money

• People who are Different

• God

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