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EMDR helped her overcome paralyzing grief. What is EMDR?

Posted at 4:04 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 19:27:31-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Donna Sutton said she knew that she needed therapy after the death of a beloved uncle. As his primary caregiver in the last year and a half of his life, she said memories of his slow death were overshadowing the memories of a long and happy life.

"If anyone said, 'Uncle Fred,' I burst into tears," Sutton said. "This was very disturbing; it was images of sickness and a lot of feelings of could I have done more?"

Sutton turned to a therapist for help. That therapist recommended a treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR. EMDR therapy helps treat PTSD, as well as depression and anxiety associated with traumatic experiences. The therapy works by replacing the emotions associated with trauma with new feelings and beliefs.

Sutton said she was spiraling, not only from the death of her uncle, but also the deaths of her father and stepmother.

"You know, my dad dying and his wife dying and all these things in succession, and I just needed to process those memories and get them straight and put them away; put away the bad images and replace them with good and healthy thoughts," Sutton said.

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In his new mental health documentary on Apple TV, "The Me You Can't See," Britain's Prince Harry opened up about EMDR treatment. He said it helped him cope with traumatic memories associated with the death of his mother, Princess Diana.

Harry said his anxiety was often triggered by trips to London, which he said reminded him of returning home after his mother's death.

"For most of my life, I've always felt worried, concerned, a little bit tense and uptight when I fly back to the U.K., which I fly back into London," Harry said. "Of course, for me, London is a trigger, unfortunately, because of what happened to my mum and what I experienced and what I saw."

Jennifer Jenkins-Boitnott, a certified EMDR therapist in Richmond, said the therapy, which has eight phases, has transformed the way she practices.

"When we work with clients who have experienced trauma in their lives, we really want to strengthen their internal resources and give them coping tools to manage that distress that’s in the present while doing the work to reduce that stress overall," Jenkins-Boitnott said.

EMDR therapy helps clients recall emotionally disturbing materials in brief doses while simultaneously focusing on an external stimulus, such as alternate tapping on one's shoulders or knees. Some therapists use headphones with alternate tones or have tappers or buzzers that pulse back and forth.

"All those different types of bilateral stimulation, what it’s doing when you do left-right, left-right, left-right; it’s getting the two halves of the brain to communicate with each other and that helps to get the trauma unstuck," Jenkins-Boitnott said.

Sutton said she experienced a profound difference in her thoughts and emotions within a few weeks of treatment. She said peace and calm eventually replaced feelings of overwhelming helplessness.

"I wish I could tell you exactly how the brain is processing these things, all I can tell you is that it did and six weeks later, I could talk about Uncle Fred, and I could look at the pictures of him and my father," Sutton said. "I could be happy again and whatever that was going on, that storm that took over my brain, was gone. It was really gone."

While EMDR therapy has been practiced since the 1980s, it's gained more attention over the past few years as more therapists have begun to see the benefits. EMDR therapists should be certified and received EMDRIA training.

The segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.