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'Grey's Anatomy' Tackles Trauma Recovery Through EMDR Therapy


Editor's Note

This episode contains spoilers for the TV series, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

An Oct. 24 episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” was all about working through childhood trauma, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a type of therapy that’s effective for working through trauma. In a new interview, psychiatrist Jessica A. Gold, M.D., M.S., spoke with “Grey’s” writer and producer Elisabeth Finch about how her personal experience with trauma therapy inspired the episode.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

In the fifth episode of the medical drama’s 16th season, titled “Breathe Again,” the patient of the week is Carly Davis, a therapist who treated Grey Sloan Memorial Hospital’s own Dr. Jo Karev (Camilla Luddington) while she faced her trauma at an inpatient treatment center. Viewers learned Jo was the product of rape and grew up in foster care, leaving her with deep abandonment wounds. By working with Carly in treatment, Jo was able to learn how her childhood trauma impacts her current life and begins to deal with her past, in part through EMDR.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a type of trauma therapy that helps you change the way traumatic memories are stored in your brain. You move your eyes side to side (bilateral stimulation) while focusing on a traumatic memory, either by following your therapist’s finger, a light bar or holding pulsing paddles in your hands. For many people, this type of trauma processing helps lessen the impact of difficult memories. Why it works is still a bit of a mystery, but research suggests one theory is EMDR mimics how the brain processes memory during REM sleep.

Finch told Dr. Gold in an interview with Self that Jo’s journey through mental health treatment and recovery was in part inspired by personal experience with EMDR after a major trauma.

“I’ve had personal experience with EMDR, so I was interested in exploring it on the show,” Finch said, adding:

I experienced a very specific trauma when I lost a friend in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting last year. I was introduced to EMDR, which I’d never heard of, and I found it really useful. I didn’t realize when I was doing EMDR for Pittsburgh that I was doing research for ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’ I was just going through life.

It was also important to Finch to portray EMDR accurately. To do this, she shared “Grey’s Anatomy” has a medical team that consults on the therapies depicted in the show to make them as realistic as possible. This also meant showing viewers that trauma and mental health recovery takes energy and effort and isn’t a straight line.

“It was really important to all of us to show that mental health isn’t just about finding a quick fix, and then you never have to think about it again,” Finch said. “We also want to show that even though treatment can be powerful, useful, necessary, and effective, it’s not a perfectly straight line.”

Finch also described how this played out in Jo’s story. At the end of season 15, as Jo learned about her childhood, Finch and showrunner Krista Vernoff wanted to make sure Jo’s story wasn’t tied off in a neat little bow in a single episode. After Jo learned about being the product of rape, Finch said, she eventually got to a place where she knew she needed to reach out for help, which ended up being inpatient treatment. In the new season, Jo still has work to do.

“This year Jo came back after doing a lot of hard work while she was at the residential treatment facility,” Finch said, continuing:

She is continuing with her meds and her therapy, but she says in the premiere that she knows she could relapse into depression again. It’s not like she got a magic fix. I was really interested in watching Jo have a moment where she thinks her recovery from depression and trauma is threatened, where she fears that she’s back at square one, and see what she does with that. The reality is that healing from trauma is not a straight line.

Gold, who was impressed with the show’s accurate depiction of EMDR, asked Finch about the response to the episode, particularly since EMDR can seem so weird to people who have never tried it. Finch said they’ve gotten many positive responses about EMDR specifically, but the larger message of mental health recovery also came across loud and clear.

“We need to work toward erasing this stigma. I’d love for us collectively, as a community, to stop defining strength or weakness by whether or not you are mentally at your best,” Finch said, adding:

My hope is that people remain encouraged to ask for help and work on recovery for whatever they’re going through. And I’m hoping that people look at mental health as health. There has long been the notion that it’s something that can wait. Someone can experience a traumatic event or feel depressed and think, It’s not like I have cancer. I don’t need to be vigilant about treatment. I should just power through it and put on a smile.

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Header image via “Grey’s Anatomy” Facebook page