Trauma Therapy: EMDR

  • Are you haunted by something extremely distressing or disturbing that occurred in your past?  
  • Do you experience flashbacks or troubling dreams?  
  • Are you easily “set off” by any reminder of what happened?  
  • Or perhaps there is a nagging belief about yourself that you can’t seem to dislodge.  Even though your ‘head’ knows it’s not true; your ‘heart’ can’t seem to let it go. 

Each of these scenarios indicate there may be some trauma that is sabotaging how you want to live your life. The good news is that there is a therapy that has proven to be very effective in helping folks move past trauma.  It’s called EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.    Have I piqued your interest?  Read on to get a greater understanding of what embarking on EMDR therapy looks like.

What is EMDR?

         When something overwhelming happens, our brain is unable to process and store the memory in the normal way.  The memory seems to get ‘locked in’ the nervous system with the original pictures, sounds, thoughts, and feelings.  This memory lock results in a person being easily triggered by anything reminiscent of the original trauma.  It can feel like the trauma is continuing to happen even though it may have been many years ago.

Much like the body, the brain has an amazing way of healing itself and EMDR seems to help facilitate this process.  EMDR stimulates both sides of your brain (for example, by moving your eyes from one side to the other) and seems to help folks access and process traumatic memories that ‘got stuck’ in a part of the brain called the limbic system.  This bilateral stimulation, as it’s called, seems to unlock the nervous system.  Once your brain is able to process the painful experience in a healthy way, your brain can deactivate negative beliefs and strong emotions related to the trauma.  

What Can I Expect?

       After gathering a thorough personal history, your therapist will assess whether you are a good candidate for EMDR.  If given the green light, there will be a preparation phase.  During this phase, you will develop some skills to prepare you for the trauma processing phase. (Don’t worry, we don’t just throw you into trauma work without getting you ready!)  You will also be introduced to a key component of EMDR, which is bilateral stimulation of the brain.  Your brain is stimulated bilaterally through following light movement with your eyes, listening to tones on headphones, tapping your knees, or feeling vibrations that buzz through hand-held paddles.   

         Next comes what is called the assessment phase.   Typically, you and your therapist will select a memory or incident as the target for EMDR and then your therapist will gather important information about that memory.  She/he will encourage and direct you to remember not only what happened, but also the emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations that go along with the memory.   

Once you and your therapist are confident you are ‘plugged into’ that memory, the desensitization phase will follow.  Using the chosen mode of bilateral stimulation, you will be asked to ‘just notice what happens’.  Your therapist will have prepared you to have a dual awareness, meaning you’ll be aware that you are in the safety of the therapist’s office, while also being aware of a distressing memory from the past. 

Throughout the processing, your therapist will check in with you and monitor any distress you might feel.  The goal is to reach the point where you feel little to no distress, even while plugged into the memory.  By the end, you will have figuratively removed the toxic aspects of the memory.  It will still be a bad memory, but its power to hijack you at any time will have been defused. The memory can now be stored like other memories. 

         Following desensitization, you will develop a positive way of thinking about yourself (this is the ‘reprocessing’ part of EMDR).  Your therapist will then ask you to scan your body, noticing any discomfort or sensations you are aware of.  If any exist, they will be processed with the bilateral stimulation in order to return to comfort.

How Long Does it Take?

         Depending on many factors, it can take anywhere from a few to many sessions to clear the memory or distress being targeted.  Because one session won’t completely remove your distress, your therapist will help you ‘close up’ an incomplete session in a safe way.  You can then continue to work on this same target at the next session.  Though it may seem a little ‘out of the box’ at first, once clients experience it they are more able to relax into the process.

            If you have tried counseling in the past,  but still aren’t able to get past some of those stuck places in your life, EMDR may be just the ticket to help you move forward.   The practice of EMDR has been extensively researched and  has been shown to work very successfully on PTSD and other psychological disorders.  Please  go to www.EMDRIA.org or www.emdr.com  if you are interested in learning more.   There are therapists at Envision who are trained in EMDR, and ready to help you reach your counseling goals with the incorporation of this wonderful therapy.  

Providers With This Specialty

C. Paige Smith, M.A., LPC
Timi Schuessler, M.A., LPC
Christin Gardner, M.A., LPCC