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Unique Therapy Helps Traumatized New Yorkers Heal

 E.M.D.R is a type of information processing therapy that is said to work particularly well with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
E.M.D.R is a type of information processing therapy that is said to work particularly well with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
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Shutterstock / Jochen Schoenfeld

NEW YORK — A number of years ago, I began working with a 12 year-old boy who was having trouble bereaving the death of his mother. His Spanish teacher found him daydreaming in class, and checked in with him.

The boy, who had recently emigrated from the Caribbean, told her he could “see” his deceased mother in class. His family immediately sought counseling for him.

Using a traditional psychotherapeutic approach, I began to see him weekly for counseling, helping him express his feelings around his mother’s death, and his relocation to New York from the West Indies.

After many months, however, he was still reporting “seeing” his late mother during class. That's when I decided to use my most powerful tool in my therapist tool box, Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or E.M.D.R.

After one very focused session using E.M.D.R., the boy no longer experienced the loss in the same way. His good grades returned, and he was more focused in class. He would talk about his mother and said he thought of her often, but from that point on he never reported “seeing” her again.

Many people would believe that to resolve an issue like this, months, if not years of therapy would be required. But, as is often seen with E.M.D.R., it is a tool that allows clients to “process” disturbing experiences and memories in a sometimes amazingly short period of time. 

What is E.M.D.R.?

Created by psychologist Francine Shapiro more than 20 years ago, E.M.D.R. is growing rapidly as a go-to means to help clients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.), anxiety, phobias and in some cases, depression.

“E.M.D.R. psychotherapy is an information processing therapy [that] uses an eight phase approach to address the experiential contributors of a wide range of pathologies," according to the E.M.D.R. Institute. "It attends to the past experiences that have set the groundwork for pathology ... the current situations that trigger dysfunctional emotions, beliefs and sensations."

In other words, E.M.D.R. helps remove the obstacles that usually keep people caught in the negative patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving that has left them feeling unhappy, painful and dissatisfied in their lives.

When a person is subjected to a stressful event, their brain cannot process information as it does ordinarily. One moment becomes "frozen in time," and remembering a trauma may feel as bad as going through it the first time because the images, sounds, smells and feelings haven’t changed. Such memories have a lasting negative effect that interferes with the way a person sees the world and the way they relate to other people.

By using a strict protocol that combines negative beliefs, emotional states and body awareness, clients focus on a target memory or experience. Using eye-movements, or other bi-lateral stimulation, the client follows the therapist’s fingers back and forth, usually for 8-12 sets (the number of sets can vary during a session).

Once the sets are completed, the client gives their feedback to the therapist on what they are thinking, feeling, remembering or experiencing. The client then focuses again on the eye-movements for another group of sets, and updates the therapist on what he/she is experiencing in that moment. 

This cycle repeats itself until the client’s understanding is, as the E.M.D.R. Institute puts it, “the positive experience needed to enhance future adaptive behaviors and mental health.” 

E.M.D.R. has been used successfully to treat traumatized people from the September 11 terrorist attacks, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and recently the Sandy Hook tragedy and Hurricane Sandy.

E.M.D.R. is endorsed by The American Psychiatric Association (A.P.A.), The Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) and the Department of Defense (D.O.D.). The V.A. and D.O.D. "strongly recommend" EDMR for the treatment of PTSD in both military and non-military populations.

How Therapists Use E.M.D.R.

Throughout the five boroughs, there are hundreds of practicing psychotherapists who received training in E.M.D.R. They incorporate E.M.D.R. into their practice, as opposed to the other way around.  Basically, no matter what orientation or philosophy your therapist may practice, E.M.D.R. can be used effectively.

Many therapists are finding that E.M.D.R. helps them treat special populations as well.  Manhattan-based psychotherapist Gail Appel incorporates E.M.D.R. into her work with sex and love addicts.

“In most cases, underneath an individual’s addiction is some sort of trauma,” Appel said. “E.M.D.R. helps to resolve the original trauma, or set of traumas, that led to their addiction in the first place.”

Sometimes, psychotherapists who are not trained in E.M.D.R. will refer a client they are working with to an E.M.D.R. therapist for collateral sessions. Usually there is a specific experience, or set of experiences, that remains blocked for the client, and E.M.D.R. has proven helpful on a short-term basis to help “push” psychotherapy forward.

How to Get Connected to E.M.D.R.

Much in the same way one can look for any therapist in New York City, finding a therapist who practices E.M.D.R. is relatively easy online. The E.M.D.R. Institute has a “Find a Clinician” page, but not every E.M.D.R. therapist was trained through the institute. Psychology Today’s “Find a Therapist” page allows you to filter by “Treatment Orientation.” Just select "E.M.D.R.," and you will see the therapists by city or zip code.

Many New Yorkers are finding that E.M.D.R. offers them the hope of breaking through years of pain and suffering by directly accessing the brain’s ability to make new and healing connections.