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WHAT IS EMDR?
You may have noticed on my list of therapy approaches that I do EMDR. EMDR is a new short-term psychotherapy treatment for a variety of emotional problems. It was developed in the United States approximately twenty years ago, and I have been using it for thirteen years in my general practice. In my opinion it is one of those truly innovative techniques that come along every once in a while. In addition it has stimulated a whole new generation of therapists who are expanding on its richness to make it even more useful. So exactly what is it and how does it work?
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, noticed that eye movements - similar to the ones that take place while we are dreaming - have a deeply healing effect on trauma. Wondering why this might be so, she began extensive research into the phenomena, and decided that intense experiences are processed very differently by the brain than are normal events. In fact they are often not fully processed, instead they seem to be left in an agitated state in the right side of the brain. She further speculated that certain eye movements actually promote processing on both sides of the brain - the non- verbal right side of the brain, and the the verbal left side of the brain - there by effecting a healing integration of the painful experience. Working extensively with people who had severe trauma, she was able to amass a large amount of statistical proof that this technique had a high incidence of resolution - and that it lasted. The question for me was, what about the average person who enters therapy - the ones without obvious and extensive trauma - could this technique be effective for them as well?
Having used it after years now, I can state confidently that it is useful in almost all cases that present in a general psychotherapy practice. Why? Because it also helps in processing areas of conflict which are unresolved. Conflict is the cornerstone of human suffering. It is when we feel two ways about something - or when what we think and what we feel are at loggerheads, that we come into therapy. I would agree with Dr. Shapiro that in conflict, as in trauma, the brain finds itself in a non-processed, highly agitated state, which for some reason interferes with the body's natural ability to heal itself. In addition I would like to add that I have found it extremely useful in helping clients who have done a lot of personal work, but who find themselves presently stuck in their progress. EMDR has a way of focussing the problem and shifting it to a new level of integration.
So how is it different from other therapies? For one thing in a very specific way it combines and focuses your thoughts, images, body sensations and emotions around the memory or issue. Then it systematically works through your level of disturbance (remember those words agitated state?) until you have reached resolution and feel calm and clear about the event or issue. The actual process is one where you would define the problem to be worked on, then you would find an image that represents the problem, along with the body sensations and levels of disturbance, and then you would complete a set of eye movements directed by myself, the therapist. The eye movements are designed to have your eyes move across the visual field from one side to the other. In other words, I would hold up my finger and have you visually follow my finger from left to right and back again. After a set of these movements you are simply asked to describe what you experienced. We would continue these sets until you have reached a place where you feel at peace with the issue. Typical comments would be: that's weird, how does that work? I can see the picture of the memory/issue but I don't feel upset about it anymore. This would then lead to a more positive way of handling the issue, or to an improved level of general emotional functioning. Typically this kind of processing is also followed by insight, such as: Well, I'm really okay, I'm not the only one in this relationship, we both bring our issues to it.
STRATEGIC DEVELOPMENTAL EMDR is a new method developed by a Canadian Social Worker, which streamlines the original EMDR and adds a number of strategic interventions. I have been working with this method only very recently but I am so far extremely impressed with the results. It works even faster and deeper than the original method. The originator, Maureen Kitchur, has been using this method for the past four years with very traumatized clients, and has a reported success rate of about 95% within six months from time of starting treatment. The basic difference in her method is that she believes traumas, and, or developmentally impactful experiences, need to be worked out in the order of their original appearance. This is because neuronal pathways in the brain are created by association, and later experiences are always shaped by earlier learning. She also believes that many of the early experiences are only imprinted in the part of the brain which is non-verbal; because of this she places less emphasis on actual eye movements - which have a direct effect on the parts of the brain that are verbal. Instead she uses light taps on either knee, or alternating sounds, which lead directly to the highly emotional early developmental parts of the brain. After thirty years in the field, my experience supports her findings. Real healing cannot happen when we engage in highly intellectualized therapy ( the Woody Allen Syndrome) we must include the body's emotional experience in our treatment approach. An added benefit to this form of therapy is that it is not necessary to consciously remember an event, it is enough to work it through by simply following the path of the body's sensations.
If this is your first time hearing about EMDR it may seem very strange to you. You may wonder how that would apply to your own situation. The important thing to focus on is that this is simply another tool we can access, which will shorten your time in therapy and save you money. It does not necessarily mean that you and I will choose to use this technique in your therapy, but it is good to know that we have it readily available if needed.
L. Jane Damude-Empey, MSW RSW
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