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Eye movement therapy offers help for trauma

Approach has potential to bring emotional healing faster


Brandy Martin had long sought treatment for her multiple sclerosis, chronic migraines and some traumatic childhood memories. And for more than 25 years, nothing worked effectively until she tried Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy.

“I had a lot of guilt and shame and self-defeating negativity throughout adulthood and after this therapy, I feel like I’m able to be fully me,” said Martin, who grew up in Commerce City and went to Lutheran High School. “I’m more confident now. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s been worth it, because I feel so much better.”

Unlike traditional talk therapy, where success depends on what a patient is willing to share with a therapist, EMDR is meant to help patients recall distressing memories and see disturbing information in a new and less emotional way.

The therapy uses bilateral stimulation, like watching a finger move from side-to-side, while patients reprocess their traumatic memories.

“You begin with a few practice runs first to get a feel for how the sessions should go before starting the real session,” Martin said. “Then, you go through a couple of life events with the therapist. As an artist, I am very visual, so reprocessing the memories with visualization helped me. I built an imaginary storage container where I stored the ‘bad stuff’ and within one 90-minute session, I was able to put them aside until I was ready to deal with them later.”

Good results

Patients like Martin may be hesitant at first, but the results speak for themselves, according to Lori Pereira, manager of quality assurance and compliance for the Community Reach Center.

“When someone is triggered by a traumatic memory, a piece of the trauma in the brain is physically and emotionally responding to the original trauma. EMDR gets to the source of the original trauma,” Pereira said.

The Community Reach Center, North Metro Denver’s mental health treatment center, is experiencing steady double-digit growth in the number of consumers receiving the therapy for post-traumatic stress disorders.

As of September, 104 consumers have been enrolled in EMDR therapy treatments at the Reach center. Designed to resolve long-term attachment to traumas — such as abuse, rape, military combat, or car accidents — EMDR is accelerating healing for consumers in as few as six sessions, Pereira said.

That means treatment can be reduced significantly from multiple years to a matter of months, depending on the severity of the trauma or layering of traumas and a patient’s response to the treatment.

The therapeutic method may seem a little mysterious at first, she said. It was developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro in 1989 and the therapy is still considered fairly new compared to the traditional forms of psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy.

“The U.S. might be a little behind this therapy versus international perspectives,” Pereira said. “It is heavily invested in cognitive behavioral therapy because of its history. But as more people experience EMDR, you will see it pop up more in culture, like in a Patricia Cromwell novel and on ‘CSI.’ It is a more part of everyday language.”

Success may not lead immediately to confidence among therapists, but the science is valid, she said.

“When you see changes in people happen so quickly, people tend to be a little scared,” Pereira said. ”The research is there and we’ll see even more research studies as they target parts of the brain and show what’s happening during treatment.”

A convert

Martin believes so much in EMDR she has become certified as a peer specialist.

“I love it and I would love to be able to teach others and share how it has affected me,” Martin said. “The traumatic memories were always running in the background and with EMDR, self-acceptance just became easier. At the end of it, you can say that something bad happened, but it doesn’t affect me now. Pre-EMDR, my mind would say ‘you wasted the whole day’, but instead I now say, ‘I was really tired today and I took care of myself today.”


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