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Should You Consider EMDR For Trauma?

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You keep experiencing a sense of dread or hopelessness. You’re ruminating over the past, and the future makes you feel anxious. You believe you’re supposed to move on, but you feel stuck in being able to do so.

Trauma can impact every area of your functioning. It can ravage your self-esteem, destroy your relationships, and affect your work and school performance. If left untreated, trauma can result in mental illnesses like PTSD.

Fortunately, many therapies can help improve your trauma symptoms. You can learn how to cope with your past. Likewise, you can learn how to heal from your wounds. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one of the gold standards in treating trauma.

But what is it? Can it help you? Are there any risks? Let’s get into what you need to know.

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What Is EMDR?

In 1987, while walking through the park, psychologist Francine Shapiro realized that eye movements decreased the intensity of negative emotion associated with distressing memories. She found that others shared a similar experience. She combined this desensitization phenomenon with cognitive practices to develop her working theory.

EMDR is primarily used in treating posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

EMDR helps reduce the distress caused by traumatic memories.

In traditional trauma therapy, it can take several months or years to feel relief. EMDR works at a faster pace. Some participants report enormous improvements after just a few sessions. 

In 1995, professionals developed the EMDR Institute to train clinicians formally. Today, EMDR experts consider EMDR as an evidence-based practice.

Numerous, published studies validate its efficiency.

Some show that upwards of 84%-90% of single-trauma victims no longer experienced PTSD symptoms after three, 90-minute sessions. In another study, over three-quarters of combat veterans were free of PTSD symptoms after 12 sessions.

EMDR Process

EMDR consists of eight distinct phases. The length of these phases depends on individual growth, progress, and history of past EMDR experiences.

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Phase 1

In the first phase, your therapist will obtain relevant background details about your life.

This information helps them formulate your treatment plan. Your treatment plan guides the therapy. It includes the goals and objectives of your care.

In this treatment plan, you and your therapist will identify relevant targets. These “targets” include disturbing memories or situations causing distress. These targets can be in the past or present. 

Most therapists believe that trauma “compounds.” This compounding effect means that unprocessed trauma creates continuous problems associated with retraumatization.

Thus, EMDR often starts by focusing on the primary trauma.

This may be a trauma that occurred in childhood.

In this phase, you increase awareness about your situation. You learn about how the past affects your present. Likewise, you may start learning skills to change your behavior. You must have healthy coping skills before moving onto the next phase.

These skills support you if you become reactivated.  Such coping skills might include deep breathing, challenging negative thoughts, and positive visualizations. 

Phase 2

In the second phase, your therapist ensures that you can relatively manage emotional distress. Additionally, at this point, you might learn more stress reduction techniques. 

Your therapist needs to balance helping you process the trauma without becoming too overwhelmed or hyperactivated.

Phases 3-6

In these phases, your therapist identifies and processes a specific target using EMDR therapy procedures.

In this phase, you will identify three variables:

  • A specific, visual image related to the targeted memory
  • A negative belief you hold about oneself
  • The related emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations

You will also identify a positive belief about yourself. Your therapist will have you rate the intensity of both the negative and positive beliefs on a scale from 1-10. Then, your therapist will engage in bilateral stimulation while encouraging you to focus on the image, negative thought, and body sensations. The type of bilateral stimulations vary, but they may include tapping, tones, and movements. 

After each set of stimulated exercises, your therapist will instruct you to take a “blank mind.” You will report whatever emotion or thought arises. Based on this report, your therapist will restructure the next set of simulations. 

You may become distressed during these exercises. Such distress is typical. Your therapist uses specific methods to bring you back on track. 

Phase 7

Your therapist will encourage you to track the events of the week.

You will document any triggering feelings or material that create distress.

This tracking helps you identify specific patterns during your routine. It can also help remind you to implement healthy coping skills when you are struggling.

Phase 8

The last phase consists of reviewing the progress and treatment goals. You and your therapist may discuss ongoing goals for therapy.

man doing EMDR therapy to treat trauma

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Who Can Provide EMDR?

All EMDR clinicians must be licensed mental health professionals. Additionally, they need intensive, supplemental training in EMDR practices. Clinicians must maintain their standing through routine continuing education units.

Ideally, you should look for a clinician with basic training in EMDR or EMDRIA-certification. These certifications indicate ample experience with direct EMDR experience. 

How Long Does EMDR Last?

The length of treatment varies based on your needs and your symptoms. You must feel safe and supported by your therapist. This rapport-building takes time. You may need several sessions to “get to know” your therapist before moving forward with the stimulations.

However, EMDR tends to be shorter than traditional psychotherapy.

It usually takes between 6-12 sessions to process single traumas. More complex, systemic traumas often require additional time.

Who Is Best Suited For EMDR?

EMDR can be beneficial for people struggling with residual trauma symptoms. Everyone reacts to trauma differently, but concerning symptoms include:

  • Recurrent nightmares related to the trauma
  • Experiencing flashbacks or “reliving” the trauma
  • Numbness or apathy
  • Avoidance and withdrawal behaviors (isolating from people, certain places, etc.)
  • Experiencing intense guilt, shame, or feelings of worthlessness
  • Disproportionately blaming yourself or other people
  • Hypervigilance (more restlessness, paranoid thinking, anxiety about future trauma)
  • Lack of ability to concentrate
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Appetite problems
  • Lack of positive emotions
  • Suicidal or homicidal thoughts

At times, EMDR may be a standalone treatment. This means that you only engage in EMDR with a therapist. However, many people work with two therapists.

They may have a general therapist to work on other issues (depression, anxiety, relationship problems, etc.).

This therapist may refer them for EMDR treatment for coping with trauma.

What Else Does EMDR Treat?

EMDR is one of the gold standards for treating trauma. However, many therapists use EMDR to treat a variety of different issues.

Changing Distorted Thinking Patterns

I was dumb for doing it that way. I’m such an idiot. How could anyone love me? It’s no surprise that distorted thinking patterns can cause low self-esteem. Often, people consider these thoughts as facts. They assume because they think it’s true, it must be true.

EMDR can help you identify and challenge these negative thoughts. You might explore the root of this thinking. Subsequently, you will learn how this thinking holds you back. In learning how to change your thinking patterns, you can adopt more realistic and healthy self-perceptions.

Healing From Grief

Grief can also be traumatic. When you lose someone you love, the subsequent emotions can feel incredibly overwhelming. You may feel angry, shocked, or depressed. You might feel completely numb. All these emotions are perfectly reasonable, but they can feel consuming.

Similarly, the nature of the death may feel traumatic. For example, maybe your loved one died suddenly or tragically. Perhaps they died from homicide or suicide. Maybe you provided caretaking for someone who died from terminal illness. Regardless of the unique situation, grief can create a complicated aftermath.

EMDR can help you cope with residual grief symptoms. While it doesn’t erase the pain or erase the memory, it can help you move towards a place of healing.

Chronic Pain

Over 20% of Americans live with chronic pain. Chronic pain can dramatically impact your everyday functioning. Moreover, traditional treatment may not always work. You may try many treatments only to still feel pain.

EMDR can mitigate some of your discomforts. Research shows that bilateral stimulation triggers the same part of the brain associated with relaxation and calmness. During EMDR therapy, your brain “scans” through the pain and sends messages that you’re safe and okay.

These messages encourage increased relaxation. Pain can be perceptive. In learning how to relax, the pain often feels less intrusive. Furthermore, you may move from a place of misery into a sense of empowerment.

Panic Attacks and Anxiety

Some research suggests that EMDR yields similar benefits as CBT in treating generalized anxiety and panic disorder. This can be promising for people who may need an alternative option from traditional treatment.

EMDR teaches people how to identify anticipatory anxiety. You learn how to distinguish potential triggers. From there, you also learn how to use self-help techniques that promote relaxation. You may also work with your therapist to visualize facing your fears.

Substance Use Disorders

Many addiction treatment facilities integrate EMDR into their curriculum. That’s because trauma and addiction are closely connected. A large percentage of people who abuse drugs or alcohol report histories of trauma.

EMDR can untangle some of the negative thoughts and reactions associated with substance use disorders. Additionally, your therapist can teach you healthier ways to cope when you feel triggered. 

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What Are The Risks of EMDR?

It should be noted that all therapy can feel worse before it feels better. That’s because therapy addresses raw material. You might be talking about feelings that you usually suppress. You may discuss and process vulnerable information. If you spent years keeping the secrets inside, it may feel unnerving to talk about it.

Some side effects to consider include:

  • Increased frequency of distressing memories (most often observed at the beginning of treatment)
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness during sessions
  • Heightened emotions related to sadness, anxiety, or helplessness
  • Vivid nightmares or flashbacks
  • Recognition and surfacing of new trauma-related memories
  • Discomfort associated with vulnerability and exposure

If you feel worried about side effects, speak about them with your therapist. You are always allowed to inquire about your concerns at any time. 

Finally, EMDR may not be appropriate for everyone.

Before considering EMDR treatment, consult with a potential therapist if you struggle with symptoms related to:

  • Psychosis (hallucinations, delusions, erratic speech, and behavior)
  • Acute mania
  • Severe substance use
  • Medical complications (history of heart attacks, stroke)
  • Acute suicidal ideation

Usually, these symptoms necessitate a higher level of care. A higher level of care may entail more intensive supervision and monitoring. Often, this helps with symptom stabilization.


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Final Thoughts

EMDR is a proven treatment method that can help reduce PTSD and other mental health symptoms. This therapy also offers promising results instead or in conjunction with traditional methods. 

If you are struggling with trauma, recovery is possible. Your past does not have to define your future or your identity. 

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