What is EMDR and how can it help for grief and trauma?


EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It can be helpful for traumatic things that happen to us, including loss of a loved one. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro to help people fully process traumatic events and to recover more quickly and thoroughly than with regular psychotherapy. The EMDR International Association describes EMDR as a “physiologically based therapy that helps a person see disturbing material in a new and less distressing way,” and EMDR seems to directly affect brain functioning. Nonetheless, how it works exactly is not known. It’s believed that EMDR is similar to what happens during dream or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. When we are very upset, our brains do not function normally, so that disturbing events can become “frozen in time.” The sensory information gets stored in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere is not available to help you understand all this sensory input. Thus, when we remember that event it can feel as bad as the first time it happened because the images and sensory information attached to the memory have not had a chance to be integrated with language, time, and sequential functions of the left hemisphere. This lack of processing the memory can affect how we relate to the world, and can limit our ability to enjoy life.

EMDR can help with a number of different emotional blockages, including complicated grief and traumatic events. I have seen EMDR allow people who were “haunted” by the memory of their deceased loved ones become less captivated by the images and memories of their loved one. Then they can move into a healthier relationship with the deceased, and forge a new life without the intense sadness and pangs of longing that people often have with complicated, or traumatic, grief. With trauma it can help people reduce the nightmares, intrusive images, and hyper-vigilance that often accompany PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic events. Even more interestingly, you see new aspects of the trauma that you might not have accessed otherwise (i.e., through regular talk therapy). The end result is being able to think about the loss or trauma without getting emotionally aroused to the same degree. With grief, there is still a sadness, but it is nowhere near as strong as it was before. People with traumatic events often report that they don’t even think about the event anymore, and their fear and anger are tremendously dissipated.

When you seek EMDR, the therapist needs to determine whether EMDR will help you or not, and if it seems like it will help, the therapist develops the target for EMDR. What this means is that I will help you bring to the forefront of your mind, what happened in the original event. This includes how you felt about it and how you think about yourself when you remember that trauma. As you call all the sensory and emotional aspects of the memory to mind, I will guide you through a set of eye movements that will often lead to a new understanding of the original event. Your feelings about it may seem to become unglued from the event, and you may get a more detached perspective on it. As you reprocess the material, you may feel intense emotions, but generally by the end of the session, you feel a lot less upset by the event. Every person has a different experience of EMDR, and there’s no wrong way for you to do it.

I have seen EMDR work for not only traumatic memories, but anxiety disorders, stress reduction, creative blocks, and phobias. I have advanced training in EMDR and use it regularly in my practice, and clients have been very satisfied with the freedom they gained from their disturbing memories.

(From EMDRIA, “What is EMDR?” Austin, TX. Internet Home Page: http://www.emdria.org)

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