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Therapy Centered on Eye Movement Provides Options for Patients Coping With Trauma

by Phillip Manning ~ April 11th, 2017

When many people think of behavioral health therapy, the image is of a patient and therapist sitting in a room talking about the patient’s life and the impact it has on their mental health. While that treatment is still alive and well at the Sunshine Community Health Center, a new option is also available. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more.

At the Sunshine Community Health Center, a relatively new method of therapy has the behavioral health staff singing its praises.

“The only word I can use to describe it is just magical. It’s amazing what people are able to accomplish in what’s really very brief processing time.”

That’s Sarah Blanning, a behavioral health provider at Sunshine. She’s talking about a therapy method called eye movement desensitization and reprogramming, or EMDR. Blanning says the method was mostly used in its early days for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The behavioral health staff at the Sunshine clinics believes that EMDR can provide a valuable option for people trying to cope with memories of trauma.   Cici Schoenberger, behavioral health lead at Sunshine, says the method provides another option beyond more traditional therapy methods.

“Some people are able to process [trauma], and we can do that in talk therapy, but others…they’re living their lives in distress. It’s always—there’s an emotional distress. That’s when I would certainly, and have…refer people I think could benefit from it.”

What is EMDR?   Sarah Blanning acknowledges that the name sounds a little strange, and says some patients come in asking if it’s a form of hypnosis. No, says Blanning.

“People are completely and utterly aware and in control. They get to choose what they want to process. If something comes up in processing that’s too intense, that they want to back off on, they absolutely have the power to do that.”

If it’s not hypnosis, then how does EMDR work? Sarah Blanning says the therapy involves guided rapid eye movements while the patient is mentally recalling trauma. That trauma can be a single, potentially life-threatening incident or a series of smaller traumas over an extended period of time.

While EMDR won’t cause a patient to forget past trauma, Blanning says the combination of recall and eye movement does a few things within the brain that help lessen the distress of recalling it.

“Number one, they’ve been found to be very soothing. That’s really important in any kind of trauma work; we want people to feel safe and comfortable while they’re doing processing.”

The second effect of EMDR according to Blanning is keeping the brain busy.

“They add an element of distraction, which means we’re taxing our working memory…By trying to hold the event in our head that we’re processing while also following eye movements, we’re forcing our brain to deal with something. We can’t store it all in our working memory at one time.”

Finally, the therapy mimics what a patient’s eyes would do during the rapid-eye-movement phase of sleep.

“The eye movements replicate the way our brain works in REM sleep, which they have found really allows our brain to have more creative associations with things.”

Sarah Blanning says those creative associations are important, since part of the objective is to target core beliefs in the patient’s mind that can be caused or exacerbated by past trauma. While some core beliefs can be positive, others can be problematic.

“I have to be perfect; I have to be in control; I’m not good enough; I’m not safe; Things like that.

Blanning says sometimes, those negative core beliefs can be reinforced by trauma.

“Something like a car accident could make someone feel like they’re really vulnerable. What often happens…is we find out that they might be really distressed by a more recent experienced, but the initial negative belief that is what’s leading to all that distress probably started a long time ago…Maybe in that car accident example, it reminds them of when their parents were divorced when they were a teenager and again that feeling of ‘I’m vulnerable. I’m not in control of my world.’”

One difficulty that can come up in more traditional “talk therapy,” is unwillingness, or even an inability on the part of patients to fully articulate what has happened in their life. Blanning says it’s possible to conduct EMDR with significantly less detail known by the therapist.

“There’s actually the ability to process something without me, or whoever the clinician is providing it, knowing really at all what’s going on. All I need to know is some of the highlights so that I can help guide the process, but, particularly for a lot of individuals, they aren’t comfortable or don’t want to share a whole lot of details, or because of the nature of how traumatic memories are stored in our brain, they don’t have the words to even begin to put it into a narrative to share.”

While Sarah Blanning says she has seen significant progress in patients through EMDR, it doesn’t wipe the slate clean. The “magic” she referred to earlier doesn’t make past trauma disappear, rather it dials down the intensity of recalling that trauma for a patient. She says it’s a little like how far away one sits from a television.

“When you’re in the midst of something that’s really traumatic or really distressing, it’s like you have your face about two inches from a big-screen TV. By the time we’re done with processing, maybe that’s on TV in a neighbor’s house, and you can kind of see it through the window. It’s still there, we haven’t forgotten it, but it’s much easier to pay attention to things going on in your life.”

Sarah Blanning is one of three full-time behavioral health providers at Sunshine Community Health Center, and currently offers EMDR therapy at both the Talkeetna and Willow clinic locations.

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