I became curious about EMDR for trauma because it seemed to be a magical tool to work with trauma. Its praise had accompanied me throughout my professional career and I wanted to give my clients state-of-the-art services for their recovery from trauma. Therefore, I decided to get trained in Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) at the Trauma Institute & Child Trauma Institute.
As a counsellor, I believe that it matters that I apply the methodologies that I use with my clients to myself first. Therefore, I used EMDR to work through systemic trauma. The power of EMDR for trauma surprised me and the EMDR sessions allowed me to heal emotionally quicker than I imagined. While I am aware that I had a positive experience with EMDR, I also know that recovery is complex and everyone is different. Here is some information that I hope will help you understand EMDR for trauma better.
What is EMDR?
EMDR has been developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro. Initially, EMDR was designed to help individuals process traumatic memories and alleviate the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR has since been used for various other mental health concerns as well. I use EMDR mainly for trauma and loss. EMDR is considered an evidence-based trauma treatment and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization.
The hallmark of EMDR is bilateral stimulation which involves the use of side-to-side eye movements while focusing on painful or traumatic memories. There are different ways to stimulate side-to-side eye movement. I usually ask my clients to follow my fingers with their eyes while focusing on painful or traumatic images. Alternatively, I may also use sound. This dual awareness process allows clients to reduce the emotional intensity of the memory and to stay present. EMDR can be used for past memories, present triggers, or triggered parts and future fears.
EMDR follows an 8-step protocol. The phases are treatment planning, preparation, assessment of the memory, reprocessing, installation of positive beliefs, body scan, and re-evaluation. During the reprocessing stage, I ask my client to concentrate on the different aspects of the memory while doing the eye movements. The reprocessing is split into sets whose duration can vary but are usually about 24 to 35 seconds. After a set, I ask my client to share what they noticed during the set. It’s usually images, cognitions, emotions, or sensations. After that, I asked my client to continue the eye movements while concentrating on what they noticed. This process continues until the client doesn’t have any remaining emotional distress. The duration of a memory reprocessing depends - sometimes it happens in a single session, and often it takes several sessions.
Apart from EMDR, I also used the so-called Flash Technique based on EMDR. It allows clients to work with painful memories without directly focusing on them. I often use the Flash technique to introduce people to EMDR and to reduce the intensity of emotions before directly working with memory with EMDR.
How does EMDR for trauma work?
EMDR helps clients process traumatic memories and reduces the emotional charge of memories. This process often reduces the distress an individual experiences associated with the trauma.
While EMDR is beneficial, it needs to be integrated into the phase approach for trauma recovery and is part of Phase 2 - Trauma resolution. When I started using EMDR as a client, I already had done a lot of trauma healing and was able to navigate complex emotions while being in my window of tolerance. It is unlikely that I could have used it that easily at the beginning of my healing journey. Before using EMDR, most people need to build the resourcing to navigate complicated emotions and manage a dysregulated nervous system. These skills are usually developed in the first phase of the model for trauma recovery. Since each of us is different, this preparation will vary from person to person and is an integral part of healing. Pacing is important in the recovery from trauma. Since most of us have parts that want to push through, it is often wiser to move slower.
Not a standalone treatment
Depending on the trauma that happened to us, focusing on EMDR alone may not be enough. EMDR is often used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for trauma. Especially when it comes to adult survivors of childhood abuse, it is essential to integrate skill-building around boundaries, navigating intense emotions, and befriending the autonomic nervous system. I also believe that parts work is essential (I’ll explain more about it in a future blog post). While the term “parts” may sound strange, it is a very helpful concept to express our complex inner worlds. Many people tend to have parts exiled from their lives to survive after traumatic incidents. It is important for recovery that we learn to welcome all of our parts and reconnect with them.
Overall, EMDR for trauma is a useful methodology for resolving traumatic memories, the second phase of trauma recovery. Clients need to be prepared before working with EMDR which happens in the first phase of a trauma-informed phase model of recovery. The preparation needs to consider the client’s symptoms and capacity to navigate intense emotions. Especially for adult survivors of childhood abuse, it is useful to combine EMDR and parts work.
As every therapist will tell you, healing involves discomfort - but so does refusing to heal. And, over time, refusing to heal is always more painful. - Resmaa Menakem
Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash