Eye Sight : Eye Movement Therapy Helps Victims of Traumatic Events

Ed Stannard, New Haven Register, Conn.

Among mental health experts volunteering their services in Newtown is a group with a particular therapeutic approach that organizes to help in emergencies.

Coordinated by the Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Humanitarian Assistance Program (EMDR-HAP), based in Hamden, therapists certified in EMDR mobilize to assist during traumatic events.

Through EMDR, the patient is taught to track the therapist's moving fingers (or something like a light bar) back and forth with the eyes. The approach is designed to help the brain process traumatic events in a more normal way, so that the event does not become emotional dynamite, waiting to devastate the victim over and over.

Think of it this way: A traumatic event, from a car accident to the shootings in Sandy Hook, will lodge in the right side of the brain, which regulates emotion and memory. EMDR, perhaps like rapid eye movement during sleep, helps the left side, which processes the event, integrate it into the other more rational parts of the brain, so that it loses some of its emotional power. This allows patients to remind themselves that they can cope, that they have positive memories as well, that they can go on living without being engulfed by the trauma, the experts said.

Karen Alter-Reid of the Fairfield Traumatic Recovery Network said EMDR "helps by activating the brain's natural healing mechanisms to process traumatic memories that have been left undigested. It does that by accessing dysfunctionally stored memory and then, (by) adding bilateral stimulation in a prescribed way," the brain is able to integrate the traumatic memory into its normal functioning abilities.

"The cross-talking of information in the brain helps the person bring the traumatic experience to its most adaptive resolution," she said. "It's the person's own brain that is doing the healing" by restoring the connections between its different sections.

This can be seen by scans that show different areas lighting up before and after EMDR.

EMDR is not just about eye movement. There are several aspects to the series of sessions which involve, among other things, establishing positive memories on which to rely. During the eye-tracking phase, the patient focuses on an image of the traumatic event, remembering feelings and sounds. After each interval of eye movements, the patient is asked if there is a lessening in the intensity of the memory.

"Through that process the memories start to shift," said Donald deGraffenreid of New Haven, a certified EMDR therapist, who said he believes the success rate is as high as 90 percent.

Colleen, 48, is a Fairfield resident who was raped in college and said she didn't really find relief from her hypersensitivity and other symptoms until she added EMDR to her talk therapy. "I was always looking over my shoulder and things like that," she said.

When she first heard of EMDR, "it kind of sounded like foo-foo therapy to me, but I thought I'd try it," Colleen said.

She spent five months working with deGraffenreid, using a light bar "because I tended to need longer set" than are practical with the therapist's waving his fingers.

Each time, deGraffenreid would check in with how severe her symptoms were, which in itself was helpful, Colleen said. "Over time, you're able to realize that things change, but you're more aware because someone's asking you."

At the end of a session and into the next day, Colleen said she could tell the technique was working. "You can definitely feel a difference because there's like a shift that happens."

While the memory of her rape was not extinguished, EMDR "took that image and just kind of moved it. It just created space for other things in life. I don't revisit the trauma in the same way."

If she had been able to use EMDR 30 years ago, "It would have probably saved me a lot of heartache," Colleen said.

MOBILIZING TO HELP

Because they believe in its therapeutic benefits after traumatic events, a group of therapists mobilize when there is an emergency and volunteer to help the victims.

The EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program is working with the Fairfield TRN and others, to coordinate a response to the Newtown tragedy. The Fairfield County TRN "emerged a year ago" after a house burned in Stamford at Christmas 2011, killing four family members, said Carol Martin, executive director of EMDR-HAP. Fairfield is one of 15 Trauma Recovery Networks in the country, with more emerging, Martin said. (For more information, go to www.emdrhap.org.)

EMDR-HAP's mission "is actually to provide education, training and not treatment ... to clinicians who work with the underserved in this country and throughout the world," Martin said. The agency has sent therapists to 33 countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, China and Haiti, she said. All are trained and licensed mental health workers who undergo additional training to become certified in EMDR.

The numbers are growing. "We trained 3,000 last year and 10 years ago we might have trained 300," Martin said.

Besides its regular training, EMDR-HAP has developed "recent event protocols" to enable clinicians to be available right away. There are also "group protocols" for large events such as a tsunami.

In Newtown, "We're doing EMDR treatment for clinicians, therapists, first responders and families," said Alter-Reid of the Fairfield TRN, which is also "helping the local clinicians with any kind of resources and support that they need from us." There are 12 EMDR-certified therapists in Newtown, "and we've got a lot of people wanting to join us," she said.

Long-term, "our goal is to not only get direct services to whomever might be suffering from trauma or PTSD in this event but to build capacity. ... It's when everybody else leaves that we will be there working with people," said Alter-Reid.

Partly because of its relatively recent development -- it was discovered by psychologist Francine Shapiro in the 1980s -- and possibly because of its unusual protocol, EMDR perhaps receives more skepticism from traditional therapists. However, it is listed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration on its National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices. Also, deGraffenreid said controlled studies showing its effectiveness have been conducted by the Department of Defense, the Menninger Clinic and among Israeli combat veterans, showing it reduces the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Martin and Dawn Roy, a certified EMDR therapist, conducted a demonstration using a car accident Martin had suffered as an example. Between tracking Roy's fingers and taking deep breaths, Martin said, "I understand how it fit into the context of a whole lot of other things. What I learned most is I need to take care of myself and I didn't do that for a long time."

Call Ed Stannard at 203-789-5743.

(c)2013 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

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