Healing Trauma Through EMDR Therapy

Life is full of trying, stressful moments, and when we experience a disturbing event, it can create extreme duress on our body and mind, also known as trauma. Following an accident, injury, natural disaster, illness, death, abuse or violence, it's common to have residual, emotional scarring. These wounds have the potential to keep us stuck in the same, triggered space for years to follow.

Talk therapy and medical consults are frequently recommended for individuals seeking relief from emotional blockages. Yet there's an alternative modality that can be used either on it's own or in combination with those treatments, that's quite effective in breaking down trauma - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR is a cost-effective, non-invasive, evidence-based form of psychotherapy that facilitates adaptive information processing of traumatic memories through rapid, rhythmic eye movements.

What is EMDR?  

Whether we’re struggling with anxiety or other emotional disturbances in response to a traumatic event, the closest thing to a magic wand in the therapy world is EMDR. This method identifies experiences that have overwhelmed our brain’s natural reliance and coping capacity, and allows us to reprocess psychologically disruptive experiences until they are no longer negatively affecting our emotions.  

It is widely assumed that severe emotional pain takes a long time to heal, but repeated studies have shown that by using EMDR therapy, we can actually experience the benefits of psychotherapy as quickly as the body can heal from physical trauma. For example, when we cut our finger, our body works to close the wound, but if something keeps rubbing against it, this irritation can slow the healing and cause pain. With EMDR, a similar situation happens within our mental process. While our brain’s information processing system is naturally geared towards mental health, if the system is blocked or imbalanced by the impact of a traumatic event, the emotional wound can remain aggravated and cause immense suffering. Once the block is removed, healing can resolve. Through EMDR training and certification, therapists are able to guide clients and help them reactivate their natural healing process.2

Who can benefit from EMDR? 

EMDR was originally developed in 1989 by American psychologist Dr. Francine Shapiro, who was studying eye movement in order to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and phobias. Now, tens of thousands of clinicians have been trained in EMDR therapy and have applied this psychotherapy to treat many other conditions, anywhere from depression and eating disorders to schizophrenia and stress reduction.1

More than 30 positive controlled outcome studies have been conducted on EMDR therapy, and the outcomes are phenomenal. Some studies show that 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer have PTSD after as little as three 90-minute sessions. Another study, funded by HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after only six 50-minute sessions. In fact, there has been so much research on EMDR therapy that it’s now recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations including the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Department of Defense (DOD).1

How does EMDR therapy work? 

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment with each session lasting up to 90 minutes.  

  • History and treatment planning – the therapist listens thoroughly to the history of the traumatic event(s) and develops a treatment plan 
  • Preparation – to build trust and explain the treatment in-detail 
  • Assessment – to identify negative feelings and incorporate positive replacements
  • Desensitization – which the eye movement techniques take place
  • Installation – to strengthen positive replacements
  • Body scan – after positive cognition has been installed and strengthened, the therapist asks you to bring up memories of trauma to see if they can be expressed without negative feelings, or if reprocessing may be necessary
  • Closure – ends every treatment and ensures that you leave feeling better than at the beginning 
  • Re-evaluation – occurs at the beginning of every therapy session2

    What does an EMDR session look like? 

    During the desensitization phase, an EMDR-certified therapist is able to measure a patient’s disturbing emotions and sensations via the Subjective Units of Disturbance (SUD) scale. S/he does so by moving his or her finger back and forth in front of your face and asking you to follow the movements with your eyes, all the while simultaneously verbally recalling your traumatic event. This combination of speaking and moving your eyes can often result in strong physical sensations, images, thoughts and emotions – or in other words, signs that your body letting go of trauma. Gradually, the therapist will guide you through this process, shifting disturbing thoughts to positive ones through alternative finger movements, such as hand or toe-tapping or auditory tones. Future sessions are devoted to reinforcing and strengthening positive feelings and beliefs until you get to a point where you can bring up memories of the traumatic event without experiencing the negativity that brought you to therapy in the first place.2

    Where to find an EMDR therapist? 

    EMDR therapy is clinical and well-researched, but is also complex and should only be conducted by a licensed therapist, social worker, professional counselor or another mental-health professional with additional training and certification in EMDR. It’s also important to make sure you find a therapist you trust and one you feel comfortable working with. If you or a loved one may benefit from EMDR, you can find a therapist in your area here.

    “It takes courage...to endure the sharp pains of self-discovery rather than choose to take the dull pain of unconsciousness that would last the rest of our lives.” ― Marianne Williamson