Treating Trauma: Why EMDR Might Be Right for You

Young woman sitting in darknessThe first question a person who is seeking help for trauma often asks is, “Will I ever get better?” It is common to feel hopeless after experiencing a traumatic event. Trauma affects how the brain functions. It can physically change the brain and make people feel that they are not themselves any longer. Activities that were once simple and automatic become difficult or feel downright impossible. Fortunately, the options for the treatment of trauma are very effective.

There are several options when it comes to choosing a modality of trauma treatment; I’ll cover them in subsequent articles. Having information about each modality can help a person to make an informed choice when choosing the route of treatment that is right for him or her.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is one effective method of treating trauma. The name of this intervention is a mouthful; just seeing or hearing it can cause a person to feel overwhelmed and confused. It is, in reality, a fairly simple intervention that addresses the many effects of trauma, including negative beliefs about the self (such as “I am not safe” or “I am bad”) that commonly arise, the sensory aspect, including images and body sensations related to the trauma, as well as emotions.

According to the EMDR Institute, Inc., several studies have been conducted to test the efficacy of EMDR, and the data show that a majority of people experience a reduction in their trauma-related symptoms after treatment. One such study, conducted by Carlson et al. (1998), found that 77.7% of veterans who had experienced multiple traumatic events had an elimination of posttraumatic stress (PTSD) symptoms after participating in 12 sessions of EMDR. Another study, conducted by Arabia et al. (2011), found that people who had experienced a life-threatening health issue related to cardiac problems had a reduction in symptoms related to PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Overview of EMDR Treatment

There are eight phases in EMDR treatment. Francine Shapiro (2001), who developed this therapeutic technique, states that it is important to understand that how long a person must spend in each phase will be different for each individual.

The phases include:

  1. Getting a history
  2. Preparing a person for the trauma work through building coping skills
  3. Determining the specific components of the first trauma that will be reprocessed
  4. Desensitization
  5. Installing a positive belief about the self when recalling the trauma
  6. Checking in with the body for any residual trauma (body scan)
  7. Closing of the session
  8. Reevaluation during the next session to see if any new information has come up or changes have happened between sessions

The Role of Dual Attention Stimulus

The thing that most people find fascinating or even strange about EMDR is what is called dual attention stimulus, which is utilized during the desensitization, installation, and body scan phases of EMDR. This involves either moving the eyes back and forth, tapping on one side of the body and then the other (i.e., left hand and then right hand), or using sounds in alternating ears.

The dual attention seems to do a few things: helps the brain to work through previously difficult material, makes recalling memory easier, and has a calming effect. It is unknown why the dual attention has this effect, but several studies support its effectiveness (EMDR Institute, 2011).

Dual attention can also help a person to keep the attention in the present while allowing the brain to go to the past, which can help to decrease the potential for hyperarousal, which could get in the way of treatment. It is also thought to help with moving information through the brain so it can be filed away correctly.

How EMDR Helps the Brain

Another way to see the EMDR process and how it helps is to imagine that your brain and its memory networks are a network of streams and rivers. When a traumatic event happens, it is almost like a beaver dam has been constructed somewhere within the network, which can send the entire network into panic mode. The water gets backed up and overflows, which can affect areas that don’t seem connected to the network with the block.

In the case of trauma, it is the emotion, memories, body sensations, thoughts, and beliefs that are overflowing and not getting where they need to go. EMDR’s main objective is to address and remove the beaver dam, or block, so that the brain can process. Removing blocks essentially helps the brain to tap into its own ability to heal itself.

Is It Right for You?

If interested in participating in EMDR therapy, make sure that the therapist you choose was trained by a reputable source.

EMDR is a well-researched and effective treatment for trauma on any level, no matter how small or big. Even if EMDR is not the right fit for you, other resources and treatment modalities are available.

References:

  1. Arabia, E., Manca, M.L., and Solomon, R.M. (2011). EMDR for survivors of life-threatening cardiac events: Results of a pilot study. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 5, pp. 2-13. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
  2. Carlson, J., Chemtob, C.M., Rusnak, K., Hedlund, N.L, and Muraoka, M.Y. (1998). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Treatment for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11, 3-24. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
  3. EMDR Institute, Inc. Dual attention stimuli. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/dual-attention-stimuli.html
  4. EMDR Institute, Inc. Research overview. Retrieved September 1, 2014 from http://www.emdr.com/general-information/research-overview.html
  5. Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures, second edition. The Guilford Press: New York

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, therapist in Midvale, Utah

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gordon

    September 22nd, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    I find this to be a pretty fascinating subject in that I like that there are real and visual cues for your therapist to know where the trauma lies and what could be working and not working for you. There are many people who I think might find this intimidating but it seems so much more subjective than other forms of therapy could be and I think that this is why it is so appealing to me.

  • Dahlia

    September 22nd, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    I firmly do believe that in order to heal we often have to face those things in our lives which have been the most painful and uncomfortable to us. This does not mean that we have to willingly relive this pain but we must confront it to be able to move past it. I think that this is a big part of what EMDR treatment is all about, helping you confront the paat in a way that is non threatening and in the end will allow you to see that you are so much stronger than this which has held you back for so long now. It could be painful again I believe that, but what I also believe is that it is a the pain that will then help you to recognize that sweetness and freedom that you will then experience once you do not have to allow this to hurt you so much again.

  • camille p.

    September 23rd, 2014 at 11:09 AM

    I know that the length of time in treatment is going to vary from person to person but this is generally one that takes less time before you start seeing improvement correct?

  • RunninFast

    September 26th, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    As with most things it is a good idea to think about what your options are and to try a few different alternatives before determining what is going to be the right method of treatment for you. There could be things that appeal to you with many different options, but I do think that it is fair to give yourself a chance with a couple of things before settling on one. Of course there could be aspects of different mediums that appeal to you so perhaps you could work with a provider who could help you explore the ebst of several worlds. Whatever you think will most benefit you is that way that I say you should go.

  • Dawn

    September 28th, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    I could be a little confused about the dual attention process and how that works. Is this going to be something similar to doing something that keeps the patient mindful of the things going on in the here and now? And how would you then access the past when all of thsi other is going on that has to be paid attention to?

  • Emily

    November 12th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    I’m Trained in Emdr, and my experience is that it is very useful if the patients have one or two distinct traumatic experiences.

    It is less useful, and can be confusing and frightening for people with early childhood abuse, which isn’t seen by the child as necessarily abusive.

    They May have vague fears and strange-seeming phobias that EMDR cannot address. I’ve used it very effectively with others, but it was not useful to me, even with a highly trained and empathic therapist.

  • Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC

    Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC

    November 12th, 2014 at 4:40 PM

    Emily,

    I have found that EMDR is particularly useful for people with early trauma using the Early Trauma Protocol and proper preparation to stabilize and prepare the client for EMDR work. I have also found it extremely useful in treating phobias using a Phobia Protocol. I would strongly suggest that you look into these and other protocols and receiving additional training and consultation. In my experience with many clients who have early trauma and phobia, EMDR therapy has been by far the most effective.

  • Lori

    December 14th, 2014 at 6:29 AM

    I have been suffering with anxiety and depression for many years of my life, and I have been in therapy a good amount of that time. I believe my anxiety stems from early childhood trauma, growing up with a parent that was either mentally ill or an alcoholic or both. I cannot seem to get past the knots in my stomach, and I believe that being exposed to this trauma at such an early age and for so long has done a lot of permanent damage. It feels like it is hard-wired into my nervous system, so perhaps this type of therapy is the way for me to go.

  • jacqui

    March 15th, 2015 at 11:38 AM

    This may.work for some but not all. Nothing can take away my trauma’s that I have experienced unless they can wipe my memories out of my head. I am 46 and have grown up with this. I srarted this theropy but soon saw it was not going to change my.way of thinking.

  • Christine

    August 17th, 2015 at 6:25 AM

    Does insurance cover this treatment?

  • Erika B

    September 15th, 2016 at 9:24 AM

    I enjoyed being able to read the step by step 8 phase sequence for the EDMR treatment. It is good to know exactly how the process is supposed to work. I agree that getting over trauma that has happened in our life can be a very difficult thing, but it is also necessary if we want to move forward. I am so grateful there are therapist out there who are willing to help people in these situations. About how long does it usually take for someone to get better? Is there a general time length or is everyone different?

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