Treating Trauma at Excelsior with EMDR

By Kristen Protasiewicz, MA, LPC

emdremdrThe majority of clients at Excelsior have suffered trauma in their lives, an experience that can impact every aspect of their functioning. Traditionally, counseling has focused on talking about the trauma in order to work through its negative impact. However, a revolutionary approach to treating trauma was discovered in 1987 that works more efficiently. The discovery was made by Francine Shapiro when she was walking her dog in the park. She noticed that when she was thinking about something distressing, the negative emotions associated with the memory lessened if her eyes followed her dog’s darting movements. She theorized that her eye movements had a desensitizing effect and decided to study this phenomenon. She discovered that others had the same response to eye movements and subsequently developed Eye Movement Desensitization; she later added ‘Reprocessing’, to become EMDR.

In recent years Excelsior has enrolled a number of its therapists in EMDR training, seizing the opportunity presented by this evidenced-based trauma treatment.

What is EMDR?

Unlike traditional trauma treatments, EMDR does not rely on talk therapy or medication. Clients visualize, rather than verbalize, the worst aspects of the traumatic event while identifying physical sensations, cognitive self-beliefs, and emotions as they occur. While the client visualizes, eye movement is stimulated by a method of the client’s choosing: finger movement back and forth, alternating tones on headphones, or vibrating panels held in each hand. As the eyes move, the trauma unfolds in the clients’ heads as a series of pictures, without the need to verbalize the incident in detail. The patient’s eye movements lessen the intensity of negative emotions associated with the traumatic event being visualized.

How is EMDR implemented at Excelsior and which clients receive it?

EMDR is implemented as an adjunctive therapy to treat unresolved trauma(s). This means that in addition to traditional talk therapy modalities, family therapy, and group therapy, the client receives the added benefit of EMDR to work through specific traumatic experiences. Clients can be identified as candidates for EMDR a few different ways: Excelsior’s Admissions Counselors can refer them upon intake based on their history of trauma, Primary Therapists can refer them upon commencement of treatment, or Caseworkers and referring agencies may refer them.

What are the benefits of EMDR?

In addition to the efficient nature of EMDR treatment, many youth find EMDR less intimidating than traditional methods. Often youth have difficulty verbally processing traumatic events. Talking about personal trauma aloud is especially intimidating to youth who struggle to trust adults. So the option to visualize trauma rather than verbalize it can be helpful for many clients. Along with trauma work, the additional benefit of EMDR is in its reprocessing; the eye movements are used to reinforce positive self-beliefs and promote healthy visualization practices. As such, EMDR gives youth coping tools to use in the future, creating lasting positive change on a neurological level.