Dr. Francine Shapiro meets trauma head-on
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Dr. Francine Shapiro walks the sea bluffs at Sea Ranch, enjoying the peace, listening to the sea below. She calls it her “retreat and refuge” from a busy life, much of it filled with other people’s trauma.
She is credited with inventing EMDR, a new type of psychotherapy with remarkable powers to heal suffering the wake of disaster. She also has founded a nonprofit that treats survivors of disasters throughout the world.
Unlike many other forms of psychotherapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can bring about relief rapidly, typically after eight 90-minute sessions.
In her new book, “Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy” (Rodale Books, 2012), Dr. Shapiro translates the psychotherapy for the lay audience, teaching people how to apply some of the techniques to their own lives, with book profits benefiting the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Program. Click here to read more about how EMDR can be used for self-help purposes.
What is EMDR?
It’s a psychotherapy that includes eye movements or other stimulation such as tapping or sound tones to deal with traumatic memories. There are 10 scientific studies that indicate it mimics REM sleep, the dreaming part. That’s the natural mechanism for processing memories and feelings.
Trauma can overwhelm the normal processes. EMDR gets them working properly again.
How did you discover this?
Originally I started out to be a teacher. I was doing a dissertation on the writer Thomas Hardy when I was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors treated me and then said sometimes it comes back, sometimes it doesn’t, so good luck. I thought we could put a man on the moon but couldn’t figure out our own immune systems.
I began a 10-year study of the mind-body connections. Then one day while walking in a park in 1987, I was thinking about things that produced negative feelings. I moved my eyes diagonally and discovered the feelings had changed. I was my own laboratory, so I started experimenting.
Then I worked with volunteers such as rape victims and combat veterans who had traumatic memories interfering with their lives. The Department of Defense has accepted EMDR into its programs. Most insurance companies also accept EMDR therapy in their programs.
Does it work with primarily healthy people who have been traumatized as well as people who have severe mental illnesses?
We keep finding new applications. It has been successfully used to decrease or eliminate the phantom limb pain amputees experience.
One startling discovery was in working with some child abusers, usually considered incurable. Many of them were abuse victims themselves and have buried their feelings. EMDR brings out those feelings and awakens empathy and compassion once they are processed properly. They finally view children as people and no longer want to victimize them.
There also are some clinical studies going on with schizophrenics.
What led you to form the Humanitarian Assistance Program?
It started with the Oklahoma City bombing. Some of us who were working with EMDR went to work with the victims. I realized how many people needed help after a disaster.
We have sent educators and trained local clinicians after Columbine, following the 9/11 attack, to Haiti after the earthquake, to Indonesia after the tsunami. We work with inner-city kids. We have worked with Palestinian and Israeli children and their clinicians.
How many people are trained in EMDR so far?
About 70,000 worldwide. There are some imitators out there not doing the complete therapy. In Appendix B of my book, I have information to help people find and interview a therapist if they feel they need one. We are constantly training more people. There are conferences held all over the world. I am frequently invited to them. I guess I am EMDR’s Mama now.
But you are not resting on your laurels?
As long as people are suffering, I have to keep working.
Dr. Shapiro will be at Book Passages for a reading and book signing at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 14. Book Passage is located at 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera.