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Helping victims of trauma

EMDR is a controversial kind of therapy meant to help patients get over different kinds of trauma. It stands for “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.” And while some doctors don't believe in it, others, and survivors of accidents, natural disasters and sexual assault, swear by this kind of treatment. And the Defense Department sanctions it to help veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. This week on WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with Dr. Francine Shapirom, who developed this therapy.

Rapp: What exactly is EMDR therapy and how does it work?

Dr. Francine Shapiro: It’s a therapy that actually works directly on the way memory is stored in the brain; the idea of post-traumatic stress disorder I’d like people to understand that this is actually a failure of the information processing system of the brain to digest the information and instead its held and stored in memory with the original emotions and physical sensations that occurred at the time. So what EMDR therapy does is access the memory and stimulates the information processing systems so the appropriate connections are able to get made.

Lowen: So the implication is that we are capable of dealing with trauma and stresses but that the failure of processing is sort of like a log jam so it just backs up and we can’t move it through and EMDR therapy enables us to clear that blockage.

Dr. Shapiro: That’s exactly right. It’s not necessary to talk it through in premise of describing it in detail but rather by putting your brain back online using the procedures we use with the EMDR therapy. Your own brain takes over and makes all of the appropriate connections that are needed.

Rapp: Briefly walk us through what a patient will experience when they’re working with a clinician through this process.

Dr. Shapiro: The clinician will talk to the client to identify what are the current problems, where they’re feeling like they’re not good enough or being bombarded by these negative feelings or thoughts. The client is asked to hold in mind the negative image that they have and to notice where they feel it in their body. Then we start the bilateral stimulation which, very often, is following the clinician’s fingers with their eyes or taps or tones. Research has indicated both taxes working memory and seems to link into the same processes that occur during rapid eye movement sleep. The client will have a different association to come up. They may be starting with that negative image but then another memory may come up. They start seeing it in a different way and during the session the client will again, think of what came up, have the dual attention, the stimulation, occur, new associations arise the end of that stimulation the client is asked ‘what do you get?’ they give the new association and then it continues that way. At the end of it, what they’re looking at is the original event which might have been a rape and the client starts off saying “I’m shameful; “I’m dirty.” At the end of the session, maybe saying “the shame isn’t mine, it’s his.” I’m a strong resilient woman, look at what I was able to go through and survive. So the same event is now stored in the brain in a different way. It no longer has those negative associations, the negative connections but it’s really become a platform for resilience.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.