EMDR: Breakthrough Therapy for Who? Part 1

/ November 10th, 2011/ Posted in Psychlogical Issues / Comments Off on EMDR: Breakthrough Therapy for Who? Part 1

Perhaps you have heard someone talking about EMDR yet wondered what does it mean? EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. However knowing what EMDR stands for doesn’t give a clear understanding of what it is. Therefore, I’ve organized this article with the intent of giving an abrigded introduction and explanation of it.

In 1994 as a Social Welfare Graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee I was first introduced to EMDR as one type of therapy for victims of trauma. I was impressed by how rapid and effectively the therapy aided individuals in processing all the issues that arise from a traumatic event. In addition, EMDR is not limited to a specific population for it can be applied to adults or young children with limited verbal skills. The Dictionary defines trauma as an “emotional shock that creates a substantial and lasting psychological damage; something that severely jars the mind or emotions.”

Francine Shapiro, PH.D. is the originator and developer of EMDR. She is a senior research fellow at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. She has written two books about EMDR and more than thirty journal articles. She was awarded the 1994 Distinguished Scientific Achievement in Psychology Award presented by the California Psychological Associations. In 1987, while strolling through a Park as a disturbing thought flashed through her mind, she moved her eyes from side to side and noticed that her negative feelings immediately dissipated. She spent the next decade developing this finding into a specific procedure for EMDR therapy.

Initially, Francine Shapiro, PH.D. applied EMDR to what she refers to as “Big T” trauma, which she distinguished from “small t” trauma. She regarded “Big T” trauma as those events that are perceived to be life-threatening for the individual. These perceived life-threatening events range from combat, rape, violent crimes or natural disasters. These events can be so stressful that they overwhelm the individual’s capacity to cope. Therefore, these perceived life-threatening events typically result in the individual experiencing PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) whether they directly experienced, witnessed or was confronted with the traumatic event. In addition the individual’s response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror. PTSD is a psychological diagnosis for individual’s experiencing one or more of the following symptoms: intrusive memories, intense distress, emotional numbing, persistent avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, insomnia, substance abuse, hypervigilance, difficulty co ncentrating, irritability, outbursts of anger. These PTSD symptoms usually begin within the first three months after the trauma however there may be a delay of months or even years. Intrusive memories can occur in the form of nightmares, recollections, flashbacks, panic attacks or obsessive thoughts. Hypervigilance is a tendency to be easily startled by any reminder of the traumatic event such as a particular sound, touch or smell. These PTSD symtoms typically cause distress, disturbance and impairment in various areas of the individual’s life. It is as if the individual isn’t living life as they had prior to the traumatic event. Specifically the individual may experience impairment in performing daily routines, job duties or interacting with others. The individual may feel as if they are functioning on auto pilot.

Francine Shapiro, PH.D. defined “small t” trauma as those occuring in the innocuous but upsetting experiences that daily life sends our way. The “small t” traumas can result in some of the same feelings as “Big T” trauma and have far reaching consequences. Although these “small t” traumas are less dramatic experiences they can linger in the individual’s mind and govern the individual’s behavior for years. A possible “small t” trauma may be a child seeing his/her dad pack, leave and drive away after a divorce then having no or limited contact with the dad throughout his/her childhood. In turn, this may lead to abandonement issues for the child which could affect the relationships the child encounters as an adult. Another incident may be an individual experiencing a humiliating and embarassing situation that results in a fear of public speaking throughout the individual’s life.

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