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EMDR Treatment Continues to Make a Difference in Patient's Lives

Proven Therapy Provides Help for Trauma, Anxiety, and Other DisordersAbbott and Chandler

Leo lived in a small town. It wasn’t until he faced leaving home for his freshman year of college in a city that he realized his fear of crossing busy streets. It was going to be a big obstacle in his new life. He had little idea where this unfounded fear came.

Leo’s life experiences are real, even if his name is not. The details above are similar to a patient who came to the Center for Behavioral Health at Holyoke Medical Center. Dr. George Abbott, employed a relatively new treatment to delve into the causes and resolve the irrational fear. Leo had experienced three traumas. A few years previously, he had been injured when a car sideswiped him. Before that, he had witnessed a close friend sustain a leg injury after being knocked down while playing a sport. When he was just 5, he saw his grandmother fall down the cellar stairs.

"Each happened discretely. Yet all the events sat there and fermented in his mind. They were unresolved," Abbott said. "Each becomes a part of a growing network of information, with images, thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and negative beliefs about the self, frozen in time."

To help Leo resolve past traumas, Abbott utilized a psychotherapy known as EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Abbott is a certified EMDR trainer, clinician and consultant.

Undertaken by a trained EMDR therapist, the patient recalls the images, emotions, and physical sensations of the incident, along with the resulting negative self beliefs. With the memory reactivated, the therapist creates bilateral stimulation. What sounds like complicated medical terminology is a simple concept. The therapist uses sight, sound, or tactile stimulation to direct the patient’s visual, aural, or physical attention back and forth while the event is being remembered. The therapist waves his hand rhythmically to the left and right; tones are played alternately in the right or left ear; or the patient holds small discs in the palm of his hand and feels alternate vibrations.

The back and forth physical movement or sensation of EMDR enables the person’s own nervous system to make the links between experiences. "The stimulation is soothing, calming. It creates a neutral zone in which people have insights and find a resolution," Abbott said.

Abbott said EMDR takes the patient to the physical senses of the experience. "It’s below the level of talk. It gives a person a genuine crack at resolving the situation. We don’t supply any of the answers to the person. The person supplies the answers," he said. Resolution can come in just a few sessions to many sessions, depending on the severity of the trauma.

The EMDR therapist observes a patient, spontaneously asking the patient to explore three questions in resolving the traumas. Who is responsible for this? Am I safe now? Can I have a life with choices now? Exploring these questions leads to their resolution and thus assists in the healing.

EMDR, backed by extensive independent research, is useful for experience-based traumas. Say the word "trauma," and most people think of battlefields, near-death experiences, or sexual assault. But trauma comes in many forms. "We talk about the big T and the little t," Abbott said. Less life-threatening trauma can include being fired from a job, being betrayed in a relationship, a frightening medical test, or moving far from family. These disturbances can lead to psychological problems that can exhibit the same symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Abbott and Jane Laskey, MSW, who is also an EMDR certified therapist, conduct EMDR therapy at the medical center. Three other clinicians of the Behavioral Health Center -- Robert Barden, Psy.D., Lynn Schache, LICSW, and C. Baxter Chandler, LICSW -- are becoming certified in EMDR.

Chandler, manager of Holyoke Health Center’s Partial Hospitalization and Intensive Outpatient Program, said he was skeptical about the training before he started, but on the third day "it clicked."

During the intensive training, Chandler and the other therapists had to practice the procedures with each other. "When you do it, it’s clearly so different from other types of therapy," he said. "The great thing about EMDR is that it normalizes the trauma’s impact on people."

In training more therapists in EMDR, the Center for Behavioral Health will be able to assist more people in the community in this innovative, effective treatment.

"In addition to providing EMDR to the general community, our hope is to provide this therapy through different medical practices in the area and employee assistance plans. Right now we are working with CONCERN/EAP, a program of our affiliate agency, River Valley Counseling," Chandler said. "We want to build it into a service that we can provide pretty quickly. Once the training is completed, we’ll have five trained EMDR therapists. It’s very exciting."

Chandler said EMDR is very useful to help first-response workers, such as members of a police or fire department, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics with the stresses and traumas of their jobs.

"EMDR, like other therapy, is only as good as the practitioner. As a department, we have some very skilled people here," Chandler said.

The Center for Behavioral Health may be reached by calling (413) 534-2698.