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When Talking Doesn’t Do the Trick, EMDR Therapy Helps Patients Overcome Trauma

Sometimes talking through trauma just isn’t enough to make the pain go away.

A specialized form of therapy is growing in the Midwest. In February, 60 psychologists and therapists from across the Midwest were trained here in Des Moines to provide what is know as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

At first glance, EMDR appears similar to hypnosis but mental health professionals assure us it’s not. Studies show it’s making a difference for patients struggling with PTSD and all types of trauma.

People often do not understand how traumatic ordinary life experiences can be.  Some experience trauma and don’t even recognize it as the cause of lasting pain, and it can be intimidating to speak out or seek treatment.

In many cases patients are unable to overcome the trauma and it surfaces in the form of depression or leads to patients withdrawing from every day activities, work, friends and family.

“Trauma itself stores in many parts of the brain that are not verbal” says licensed psychologist Tom Ottavi. “That are much more feeling and sensory based. (EMDR) just helps tap into that.

In order to treat the depression, psychologists must first get to the underlying trauma behind it and EMDR is increasingly becoming the preferred method.

“We use eye movements by waving our fingers in front of the person’s eyes to help them accelerate their processing of old material so that it comes to the forefront and moves through the brain faster” explains social worker and EMDR and Beyond director Bonnie Mikelson.

The process appears simple, having patients focus on a therapist’s fingers moving back and forth, or a light bar making the same motion.  Studies show the movement helps patients process past trauma, which is the first step toward coping and ultimately moving beyond the pain it caused.

“You want to bring that hyper arousal down so that the person can still remember what happened to them, keep what’s useful, but they don’t have that high distress.”

Mikelson, who led the recent EMDR training, believes the therapy can work for a variety of people.

“With kids we say we’re going to visit the yucky memory and allow them to think about it in a way they didn’t have a chance to when their ability to cope was being overwhelmed” says licensed mental health counselor and EMDR and Beyond clinical director Amy Terrell. “Because of that, it reduces the symptoms that children come into therapy for.”

Ottavi says the technique can even be effective in reducing physical symptoms.

“Literally fainting, going almost into comatose, or even seizure like activity can get worked through, and that’s very powerful because medicine isn’t going to touch that.”

Those who use the therapy say it has completely transformed their practice.

“It’s the client outcomes, it’s just been a game changer” exclaims Mikelson.

“I don’t see repeat clients for a reason. Because once something is gone, it’s just really, truly gone for them and they get to just go live their lives and that’s a pleasure to be a part of” says licensed marriage and family therapist and EMDR trainer Lindsey Olsen.

Leaving people with a better outlook on the future.

“A lot of times, people will say my job’s gotten better, or this relationship has gotten better, or I’m able to speak up for myself when I wasn’t able to before, or I’m able to set boundaries with people where I wasn’t able to before” adds Olsen.

EMDR is not a new therapy, research began back in 1989.

Use of the technique continues to grow and most insurance companies now consider EMDR a medically necessary treatment for PTSD.

For more information check out emdrandbeyond.com.