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EMDR: The therapy that rewrites trauma

EMDR: The therapy that rewrites trauma

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PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a common occurrence that doesn’t just apply to war veterans. You may be struggling with similar symptoms yourself, without realizing it.


Though still relatively unknown, EMDR is an alternative therapy that has been around for years and is being practiced by licensed therapists around the world and can reduce the symptoms of PTSD and trauma-related anxiety in just a few sessions.

A traumatic memory is like a file that has been filed incorrectly in a filing cabinet, it sticks out and disrupts the flow and order of things. With EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) you can go back to that folder and file it correctly. After it’s filed correctly you can close the drawer and move on in your life without getting triggered.


What does it mean to be triggered?

You may have seen “Trigger Warning” on posts or videos, but why would something need a trigger warning? A trigger is something that causes, or triggers, the same emotions as a past traumatic event. It feels as though the event is happening again in the present. It can cause flashbacks and feelings of anxiety. This is disorienting and distressing, especially when it happens unexpectedly, as it often does. 

Not everything can come with a trigger warning because triggers happen in everyday life. They are often provoked by sensory cues--it could be a sound, smell, or visual that reminds the person of what was happening around them when the trauma  occurred. 

Gerard Ilaria, head clinician at Headstrong Project, an organization that helps veterans overcome PTSD, explains, “Trauma causes the brain to malfunction. During a traumatic experience, memories cannot be processed correctly. So a person with PTSD is still carrying those traumatic experiences around in their body. Because those experiences were never filed away into the ‘past tense,’ the brain continues to operate as if the trauma is happening in the ‘present tense.’ It’s like a computer with a program that's running constantly in the background. The idle is way too high. And it’s an exhausting way to live. So those memories need to be revisited and processed. And we have an amazing way of doing that. It’s called EMDR.”

Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD and not everyone who experiences trauma symptoms has had one major event that caused them. How your brain reacts and processes the trauma is more important than the trauma itself.

therapy psychology trauma

What is trauma?

The DSM-5 defines a PTSD trauma as any situation where one’s life or bodily integrity is threatened--these are called large ‘T’ traumas. Small ‘t’ traumas are events that are not inherently life threatening but exceed our ability to cope and cause a disruption in our emotional functioning.

Small ‘t’ traumas tend to be overlooked because it is easy to rationalize that the experience is minor or common and therefore the individual may feel like they’re being “overly dramatic” by letting themselves be affected by it. It’s even possible that the person may not realize how disturbed they were by a particular event.

Some examples of small 't's include:

  • Unexpected changes in a job 
  • Relocating 
  • Infidelity in a relationship
  • Conflict with a family member or coworker
  • Financial worries
  • Any significant life event or change

While small ‘t’ traumas might not lead to the development of truly defined PTSD symptoms, but a person can develop trauma response symptoms. As a result, they experience increased distress and decreased quality of life. Chances of distress are even higher if someone experiences several small ‘t’ traumas in a short amount of time in their life.

Whether it’s a big ‘T’ or small ‘t’, if you are experiencing distress and anxiety in your life it could be a result of unresolved trauma.

Your trauma doesn’t define you.

While someone who has experienced trauma may live in fear of being triggered, they are the same, complete, vibrant person underneath it all.

“Beneath the surface of the protective parts of trauma survivors there exists an undamaged essence, a Self that is confident, curious, and calm, a Self that has been sheltered from destruction by the various protectors that have emerged in their efforts to ensure survival. Once those protectors trust that it is safe to separate, the Self will spontaneously emerge, and the parts can be enlisted in the healing process.” -Bessel Van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.

Van der Kolk continues, EMDR focuses “not only on regulating the intense memories activated by trauma but also on restoring a sense of agency, engagement, and commitment through ownership of body and mind.”  

There are often deep feelings of shame associated with people who experience stress and anxiety after trauma, but there shouldn’t be. Just like you would go to the doctor for a broken bone or get medicine when you're sick, you can seek treatment for your mental health issues and you can heal.

“PTSD is an anxiety disorder and we can treat it. But you’ve got to get help. In the military, you hear things like ‘shake it off’ or ‘rub dirt on it.’ And those are great messages for people at war. But you’re home now. You’re back with your families and the warrior mindset is no longer appropriate. If your nervous system is broken, it needs to be fixed. Just like a broken leg needs to be fixed. It’s that simple. You may have served with guys who don’t have issues-- that’s great for them. But that doesn’t mean they are stronger than you. It means they don’t have the same nervous system as you. It’s not weakness. It’s science. And it can be solved." -Gerard Ilaria

EMDR therapyPhoto courtesy of Addo Recovery.

History of EMDR Therapy

In 1987, Francine Shapiro was on a walk when she started thinking about something that had been distressing her. She noticed that as she walked she was looking from side to side at the things around her. By the time she finished her walk the unsettling feelings had faded.

Francine began experimenting and observed that when she thought of something disturbing while moving her eyes rapidly back and forth, the disturbance began to go away. She eventually developed EMDR Therapy in a way it could studied and replicated.

This eye movement is similar to the process the brain goes through during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep which is thought to be connected to the processing of memories and information, as well as overall emotional and physical health.

After extensive studies, EMDR is recommended as an effective treatment for trauma in the Practice Guidelines of the American Psychiatric Association, and those of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

EMDR therapy

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR is a psychotherapy that enables healing from symptoms of distress caused by traumatic life experiences.

The brain is constantly working to develop and heal, but it can get blocked or stuck by the impact of a disturbing event.

Through EMDR, the trauma is reframed into something positive, it doesn’t erase the trauma, but instead of saying, “This shouldn’t have happened.” the thought is now, “This did happen, but it is okay.” The clinician’s job is to help the client access their natural healing process.

EMDR therapy is an eight-phase treatment. Eye movements are used during one part of the session. The clinician will determine a memory to target and ask the client to notice and hold on to different aspects of the memory as they move their eyes back and forth or other bilateral stimulation such as holding a device that vibrates in alternating hands or headphones that alternate tones in each ear.

The clinician guides the client through the process of recognizing how they feel when recalling a certain memory and reframing the memory in a way they can use it to their benefit rather than allowing it to cause spontaneous distress.

Part of the process includes identifying:

  1. A visual image related to the memory
  2. The negative belief that came about because of it, such as “I am not good enough”
  3. Related emotions and body sensations.
  4. A positive belief.

The client considers the negative beliefs and feelings while using bilateral stimulation and the clinician prompts them to notice whatever happens, without trying to force anything. As the negative belief fades away, the client replaces it with the positive one.

To listen to what it’s like to go through a session check out this podcast.

EMDR Therapy

Benefits of EMDR

Patients of EMDR usually see healing faster than other psychotherapy treatments.  

Studies show that:

Unlike talk therapy, the client can identify a memory without having to talk about it. The results are not from clinician interpretation, but from the natural way the brain processes emotional information.

“With other forms of therapy, you have to describe the memories in detail. With EMDR therapy, that’s not necessary. The client says as much or as little as they want to. As a matter of fact, in many instances, you can do it content free, and the client just gives you enough information to know that it’s changed. So rape victims, molestation victims, who may feel so much shame and guilt that they don’t want to talk about it initially—they don’t have to. You don’t have to force the client to do or say anything that they don’t want to.” - Francine Shapiro, Developer of EMDR.

When EMDR therapy is successful, the meaning of painful events is transformed. A trauma victim shifts from feeling fear and shame to reclaiming their agency and autonomy. This reframing allows the person to change the narrative from “I am weak and scared.” to “I survived and I am strong.”

If you are interested in trying EMDR therapy you should do so with the help of a licensed, EMDR-trained clinician. You can use this site to search for an EMDR Therapist.

Trauma creates a block that prevents our emotional chi from flowing freely. At Lakanto we are committed to helping people improve their emotional, physical, and spiritual health. To learn more about how to discover your chi click here.