What is EMDR Therapy?
EMDR therapy, or Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing therapy, is a trauma-specific therapy originally found and designed to heal PTSD disorder. It started in 1987 when Francine Shapiro, the founder, was walking in the park, and she became mindful that she was thinking about something distressing, and her eyes started to move.
Her discovery, at the time, was how her distress seemed to be resolving while her eyes were moving back and forth. This further intrigued her, and being that she was a graduate student, she decided to research this phenomenon. It was so successful she developed a whole protocol and began working with those suffering from PTSD. and yes, you guessed it, amazing healing happened; now 30 years later, it is one of the most evidence-based and sought-after therapies in the world.
How Does EMDR Heal Trauma?
EMDR has a ton of evidence for healing PTSD, but it did not stop there. It has been found to heal and resolve distressing events and emotions, as well as being highly effective in the treatment of eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, phobias, performance anxiety, and more.
EMDR adheres to the Adaptive Processing Model (AIP), which explains the observed results of EMDR therapy. The hypothesis is that distressing memories can be left unprocessed or fragmented and thus are considered to be stored maladaptively. This, in turn, can create trauma symptoms and lead to the development of mental health disorders.
BLS Resolves Trauma
It creates obstacles to our brain’s natural, organic, and optimal processing of information, which occurs in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Bilateral stimulation (BLS), through eye movements or other mechanisms, a cornerstone of EMDR Therapy, is believed to be able to remove the obstacles, and although the brain is able to complete the organic and adaptive processing of the distress, it reduces unwanted symptoms and behaviors.
Definitions: What is Trauma?
I like to describe trauma as a distressing event or situation that comes at you too much and too fast, overwhelming your sensory system and nervous systems. And importantly, it is either too overwhelming to realize and process at the moment or is left unresolved, so it shatters or fragments to make it more manageable.
Therefore, the memory and the associated feelings and emotions are fragmented and often dissociated. The fragments become frozen in trauma time and, inadvertently, can be triggered again and again without resolution. This is essentially what a flashback is; unresolved and unprocessed material coming up intrusively.
EMDR is one of the most effective therapies for resolving trauma, as the BLS allows the unprocessed material to become conscious, and the person can re-process it fully and optimally. This leads to resolution without the distress and symptoms.
EMDR is done with a licensed and trained therapist and provides a gentle way to move through trauma. A skilled and compassionate therapist is essential to effective EMDR Processing. If you are not ready to do trauma therapy yet, try out the DBT Skills Group that prepares you and gives you skills to heal, or try individual therapy specialized for you.
When triggered, it will likely feel intrusive, like your response does not match the present moment. It can come up as distressing body sensations, intense emotions, images, sounds, thoughts, or a combination of these. And it can make sense to your past, or worse, feel confusing like you have no idea where it comes from, not being able to link it to an event in time.
What is traumatizing for one person may not have lasting effects for another. Many factors play into this, including, but not limited to:
- Did you have loving support around to help?
- Were you soothed by caregivers or close others?
- Did you get counseling or other professional help?
- How old were you when it happened?
- Did your environment validate that it was difficult?
- Was there anyone you could talk to, lean on, and who helped you process it?
- Did you have the coping skills to help the process effectively?
Types of Traumas That EMDR Heals:
- Global Traumas
The majority of people across genders, cultures, ages, etc. will agree and understand these events as being very traumatizing. A high percentage of individuals will have unresolved symptoms and hardships.
The more frequent and/or younger these happen, the more traumatizing and destabilizing the impact may be. And if you have previous unresolved or unprocessed traumas, whether global or personal in nature, and later events of this nature accumulate the more complex it gets.
It is important to get the help and support you need!
- Sexual abuse/assault
- Psychological/Emotional abuse
- Physical abuse
- Car/Motor accidents
- Plane crashes
- Warfare & related
- Natural disasters
- Sudden unexpected death
- Witnessing violence
- Being adopted/abandoned
- Raising traumatized kids
2. Personal Traumas
Importantly, the accumulation of personal traumas can create as many symptoms and hardships, if not more, than global traumas. Most people don’t realize this.
It is through relationships, especially our original caregivers and significant environments that we grow up in, that we learn to regulate our emotional experiences. If we have many experiences of being invalidated, shamed, unloved, scared, panicked, rejected, or abandoned occur, whether literal or perceived and are left unrepaired, trauma ensues.
The more frequent and/or younger these happen, the more traumatizing and destabilizing the impact is here just like with global trauma. And again, if you have previous unresolved or unprocessed traumas, whether global or personal in nature, and later events of this nature accumulate, the more complex it gets.
- Loss of pets/friends/teachers
- Loss of jobs
- Heavy invalidation
- Shame experiences
- Being bullied
- Unresolved conflicts
- Illness and disorders
- Medical procedures
- Loss of support system
- Major life transitions
- Significant financial hardships
*This is not an all-inclusive list, but it gives you a good idea of the many things that can lead to trauma.
EMDR Therapy to the Rescue
EMDR is a powerful trauma therapy that is highly endorsed for healing from post-traumatic stress and distressing life experiences. EMDR helps you reprocess unprocessed material in a gentle and effective way and can often shorten your duration of therapy. Learn more about What is EMDR Therapy? or How to Relieve Trauma and Anxiety with EMDR Therapy.
Mindful Realization with DBT Therapy
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (M-BCT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are empirical evidence-based treatments that empower you with doable techniques and coping skills that can gently bring the unprocessed trauma information into your conscious awareness so you can regulate and process what was left frozen and unprocessed, gaining new empowering insights.
Self-Compassion & Trauma
At the time of the original trauma, you likely needed soothing support and compassion. How do I know this? That’s easy because you are human, and we all need connection and compassion. Our poor nervous system needs others to help soothe us in order to regulate and process overwhelming experiences.
Therefore, learning self-compassion and acceptance skills are powerful ways to begin healing our nervous system. This is especially important for clients who find it difficult to be self-compassionate; the harder it is, the more powerful the intervention is. Learn more about the science behind self-compassion.