EMDR Therapy is Helping Trauma Survivors Heal
If there was a form of therapy that could help make a deeply distressing memory—an experience of abuse, assault or even death in the family—feel less overwhelming, just by moving your eyes from side to side repeatedly, would you explore it?
That’s what Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy offers, in theory. For those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other forms of trauma, it’s an opportunity to reclaim personal agency and alleviate the grief and anxiety attached to those events.
But most of all, it’s “self-directed healing,” said Jacqueline, who employed EMDR therapy for a year to help with past traumas, including virtually during the COVID-19 epidemic. “It’s not sitting around and talking intellectually about what happened to you,” she said. “It’s a learned and felt experience in your body.”
For Jacqueline and others like her coping with trauma, EMDR therapy offers a stark contrast to cognitive behavioral therapy and can help to create new pathways toward healing from major trauma.
How does EMDR work?
Founded in 1987 by psychologist Francine Shapiro—although some practitioners credit Milton H. Erickson, a psychiatrist specializing in hypnotherapy, with originating the concept—EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (moving one’s eyes from side to side) and desensitization to help patients focus on a traumatic memory and identify all the negative feelings and physical sensations connected to it. Using visualizations, positive images and/or thoughts identified before desensitization, practitioners can help patients release the tension associated with those difficult experiences.
But there’s more to EMDR than just darting your pupils from left to right. According to Lynda Smith, a certified EMDR therapist and licensed clinical professional counselor based in California, the therapy is similar to hypnotherapy in that it can help clients learn to connect their minds and their bodies in ways that are self-soothing, enabling them to feel more empowered during moments of distress. “It’s like teaching someone to fish as opposed to giving them the fish,” she explained.
EMDR therapy unfolds over the course of eight phases: client history taking, preparation, assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan, closure and reevaluation of the treatment’s effectiveness. “You’ll take a client through guided imagery or a visualization so they can learn how to calm themselves down, whether they’re in your office or not,” Smith said.
Visualizations can leave a lasting impact, even after a person is done with their official treatment. “A lot of the EMDR work that I did was based on my own visualizations of healing,” Jacqueline said. “They give you tools as you’re working through these memories—some of them involve having certain people around you or a future self—which has been enormously helpful to me in real time.”
The drawbacks of EMDR
As with any form of mental health treatment, EMDR can pose certain challenges, too. For one, it’s “exhausting,” said Jacqueline. Even though it’s not a form of therapy that’s physically demanding, sessions—which spanned from short sessions to several hours—often left her feeling drained and tired.
Some people may feel overwhelmed by a traumatic memory brought up in EMDR treatment, a sensation referred to as flooding or abreactions. It may lead to feelings of detachment or dissociation from reality, such as being unsure about where you are or the time and place you’re in, but it can take different forms.
When Jacqueline experienced this in EMDR, she found it helped to be outdoors in nature and to be with her partner. “Just being around quiet touch was very helpful for me,” she added.
According to Smith, who did not treat Jacqueline, flooding isn't common but may occur during treatment. Experienced EMDR providers who have conducted a thorough preparation are better equipped to catch the signs of it and bring clients back to a state of calm and equilibrium before the end of a session. Most importantly, it’s crucial to remind people in treatment that they’re not powerless.
“When a traumatic event happens, there’s a disconnect,” Smith said. “My job is to help [clients] reconnect and understand they are in control. It’s about helping people not be afraid anymore.”
Is EMDR for everyone?
EMDR doesn’t erase bad memories, Smith noted. But what it can do is change the way your body reacts to them. “You may still feel sad when you recall the memory and that’s all right,” she said. But after successful EMDR treatment, you may be less likely to feel triggered into reliving the event over and over again, which is helpful for growth and healing.
Even still, it might not be for everyone. While you don’t have to have PTSD to benefit from EMDR—and Smith stressed that “whatever a client defines as traumatic for them qualifies for EMDR treatment”—it may not be ideal for those who have personality disorders such as schizophrenia because of the risk of dissociation. Finding a mental healthcare provider with specialized EMDR training is crucial for helping guide the experience.
It’s also important to do research in advance. Jacqueline, who had done more than 10 years of psychodynamic-type therapy before pursuing EMDR, read "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma" and spoke to others who had undergone EMDR treatment before actively choosing to seek it out.
“It’s hard until you’ve done [EMDR] to really understand what it feels like and how it’s engaging your brain in a different way,” Jacqueline said. “Since I did this EMDR work, I’ve gone through a major loss and grief, [and] having those tools has been enormously helpful to me.”