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Incorporating EMDR into my therapy practice

May 30, 2011

A Personal History of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing at Council for Relationships by Senior Staff Therapist Michael D’Antonio

From ancient times, Europeans searched for a specific missing ingredient for their cuisine: an acidic base for sauces. They tried pomegranates, then cranberries: with mixed success. Finally, the New World yielded up the tomato. We all know how successful that turned out!

Like other couples therapists, I’ve struggled with helping highly distressed couples be less reactive and settle down to the work of effective problem solving and relationship enhancement. Getting angry, defensive or stonewalling partners to calm down and talk with each other is no easy task.

By the early 1990’s, I had concluded that volatility and reactivity in personal relationships were, in large measure, the result of an accumulation of past negative relational experiences, possibly from childhood to the present. Negative experiences might include anything as extreme as violence, illness, substance abuse, betrayal, and conflict in the family of origin or as mundane as parental inattentiveness and benign neglect. Because such experiences tend to attach themselves to us, they diminish our self-worth and render us more vulnerable to anxiety, shame and guilt in our interactions with others. When our partner’s behavior touches this diminished, vulnerable part of ourselves, I concluded, defensive reaction is the result.

Then, I heard about EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).

In the late 1980’s, Dr. Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, made a serendipitous discovery: disturbing thoughts, feelings, or flashbacks that often follow a traumatic event could be alleviated or eliminated by having victims move their eye rapidly while reflecting on the event.

By the early 1990’s, EMDR emerged as a new treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was used to treat rape victims and Vietnam vets. I reasoned that, if EMDR had a calming, self-affirming effect for traumatized individuals, it should have a comparable effect on highly reactive clients, with their history of negative, possibly traumatic, relationship experiences.

The rest is history. With the help of a respected colleague, I got over my initial misgivings about the seeming kookiness of the idea and got trained in EMDR. I immediately put it to successful use with a current client whose daily life was handicapped by flashbacks to long-term sexual abuse by his father. As I began incorporating individual EMDR sessions into the treatment of highly reactive couples, the anticipated results occurred: clients became calmer and more focused, less reactive and more responsive to one another. I found my tomato!

Since then, both EMDR and its practice at Council for Relationships have expanded.

Both the application and methodology of EMDR have changed. EMDR has evolved into a useful treatment for a range of problems including PTSD, anxiety, depression, phobias, and complicated grief. It has also become a valuable component of relationship and sex therapy and can be used as an effective performance enhancer. Now, neither eye movements nor negative experiences are any longer a necessary part of the treatment. The client may focus on a specific positive or negative event: past, current, anticipated or even imagined. Any residues of negativity are attenuated and feelings of competence, self-worth and well being are enhanced. Treatment may still involve eye movements. More likely, the client will receive bilateral stimulation auditorially through short tones heard through earphones or tactilely through mild taps, often delivered mechanically to opposite sides of the body. It is rapidly alternating bilateral stimulation, not eye movements specifically, which produces the therapeutic effect.

Council for Relationships arguably hosts the largest group of trained EMDR therapists in the country. We have been leaders in incorporating EMDR into relationship and sex therapy. We continue to use it extensively and to integrate current EMDR developments into our work. With EMDR, we have improved the quality of life for people suffering from nagging self-doubt, anxiety, and depression. We have helped clients free themselves of the emotional consequences of growing up in alcoholic, abusive, or neglectful families. We have helped many face potentially unsettling events like upcoming surgery, a legal proceeding, or a critical exam with confidence and self-assurance. Most central to our mission, we have helped distressed couples to de-escalate hostility and anger and to practice and reinforce healthier ways of relating. This tomato has proven to be very versatile!

(Anyone interested in learning more about EMDR might enjoy reading the very readable EMDR: The Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress, and Trauma by F.Shapiro and M.S.Forrest.)

Michael D’Antonio, PhD, is a Senior Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships’ Paoli Office.