In this episode of SKYlights, the Open Sky Wilderness Therapy podcast, we talk with Clinical Therapist Kirsten Bolt about the effectiveness of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR is a treatment that has been used to address a wide variety of clinical issues and the underlying negative core beliefs about oneself.
EMDR is a helpful way for people to reprocess experiences and develop adaptive core beliefs, providing relief from frozen neural pathways. This paves the way for students to harness other skills and resources taught at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.
Kirsten is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She graduated from Syracuse University in 1999, Summa Cum Laude, with a BS in Health and Exercise Science. Instead of following her projected course to study Biomechanics, she turned west, seeking something that felt missing. That trip landed her in Utah amid stunning red-rock canyons, wide sandy rivers, and abundant sunshine. Kirsten finds wilderness to be a uniquely powerful setting for young people to connect to themselves, to others, and to their means of contributing to the world.
Her wilderness therapy career began as a field guide in 2004. In that role, she felt drawn to the deeply intimate, interpersonal work that occurred with families, and in 2007 she enrolled at the University of Oregon to complete a graduate degree in Couple and Family Therapy. Her other clinical experiences enable her to understand complex intra- and interpersonal dynamics. Her clinical background includes working at the Center for Family Therapy in Eugene, Oregon, with couples, families, and individuals of all ages experiencing a wide variety of struggles. She facilitated bereavement support groups for elementary-aged children, served high school girls in an impoverished community, led mother-daughter support groups, and provided individual and family therapy services at a center for girls aged 10-18. Kirsten is particularly passionate about family therapy, and she believes family growth is vital in working with young people individually.
Following graduate school, she worked for two years as a wilderness therapist at Aspen Achievement Academy and then, in 2011, joined Open Sky to deepen her holistic approach to wellness. Since then she has worked with adolescent boys and girls, as well as young adult men and women. Kirsten’s expertise and passion manifest most in working with adolescent girls. She works with a wide range of adolescent girls, from clinically complex, treatment-resistant girls with complicated family systems and externalizing behaviors to over-functioning girls who internalize their emotions and hurt themselves as a result. As a family therapist, Kirsten is skilled in clarifying complicated systemic issues and helping formulate a concrete diagnostic assessment. She is supportive of parents who might need extra coaching due to anxiety, grief, and other personal struggles. With her firm and directive approach, Kirsten confronts presenting issues and holds students and families accountable to their therapeutic work, while circumventing the shame that can interfere with progress.
Kirsten evokes peer confrontation and challenge as an additional means to elicit change. Common themes she emphasizes are emotional regulation, assertive communication, identity development, vulnerability, and healthy relationships. She incorporates humor and playfulness and quickly develops strong therapeutic relationships. She works collaboratively and uses the entire treatment team (the family system, Open Sky staff, previous home professionals, educational consultants, etc.) to help students stabilize, assess clinical issues and needs, and treat presenting issues while developing an appropriate longer-term treatment plan. Kirsten incorporates principles of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocesssing Therapy (EMDR) to support students with issues related to emotional dysregulation, trauma, and emerging personality disorders.
Most of Kirsten’s childhood was spent in Maryland, but she also was privileged to spend five years overseas in England and Germany. Still living in Utah, Kirsten finds inspiration observing the landscape, running whitewater rivers, climbing sandstone cracks, mountain biking, trail running, skiing, playing guitar and piano, and spending quality time with her husband, children, dogs, and cats. Kirsten is humbled daily by her personal experiences as a mother, stepmother, and partner, and she believes her clinical work is significantly deeper as a result.
What happens on a really, very basic brain level is that we have two types of memory: implicit and explicit memory. When we experience things, they run through the implicit memory, but sometimes they don’t run all the way through the parts of our brain that help transfer that into explicit memory. What happens is these events get stuck, and they haven’t been fully processed. What EMDR is doing is actually helping finish processing these experiences in the brain, so that we have decreased sensitivity to them, which changes the way that we think about these events, the way that we feel about these events and the way that we remember these events.
This is a really complex integrative therapeutic approach that originated as a way to help people be less activated with things that were really difficult. This is something that was originally created with the idea of working in particular with a population that has experienced traumatic events in their lives. The idea was helping to desensitize some of those experiences so that they don’t feel as overwhelming in the present moment.
Inherently, we tend to interpret and try to make meaning of what we experience. Unfortunately, most of the time, we’re making meaning in ways that are actually pretty detrimental to ourselves and so what frequently happens is we create or reinforce negative core beliefs. Frequently, these are about our worth, about our responsibility, about our powerfulness. Therefore, we start to reinforce these negative beliefs and then we start seeking evidence to support those in our day to day lives. They become more ingrained in how we experience ourselves and therefore how we walk through the world.
The beauty of EMDR is you don’t have to have a longstanding therapeutic relationship. It’s something that’s short, powerful, intense, effective and works very quickly.
On a wilderness trip in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) in 1995, Emily discovered she could combine two of her passions: working with youth and being outdoors. Since then, she has worked for Aspen Achievement Academy, Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, and Connecticut Wilderness School. She was part of the founding team at Open Sky.
Emily worked as the lead therapist for adolescent girls for her first 5 years at Open Sky. Her areas of clinical expertise include depression, anxiety, grief and loss, trauma, self-harm, disordered eating, and adoption and attachment issues. Her clinical approach is informed by cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family systems, and attachment theories. Relationship building through letter writing is a major focus of her work with students and families.
As a founder and owner of Open Sky, as well as the Clinical and Executive Director, Emily brings a breadth of knowledge with her background as a therapist, field guide, trainer, logistics coordinator, emergency responder, and field director, Emily is known for her direct, caring leadership style, her ability to inspire excellence in others, and her team oriented approach. The student treatment plan is her compass for her decision-making regarding Open Sky’s students, families, and employees.
Emily loves reading, writing, yoga, mountain biking, telemark skiing, rock climbing, spending time with friends and family, and cooking with foods from the local farmers’ market.