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Trauma and EMDR

“I feel like I'm always on edge, you know? Every little thing sets me off, and I can't relax. It's exhausting.”

"Sometimes, I just feel empty inside, like nothing matters anymore. It's hard to feel anything at all."

For those of you want a quick summary of the page:

Trauma is an unprocessed event that can be caused by something that happened to us (bullying) or something that didn't happen (like neglect). Our brain stores trauma in the primitive part rather than the rational part, which means talk therapy cannot heal it. EMDR is a therapy that helps to heal trauma by calming the early warning system that engages the nervous system. EMDR is non-verbal and does not need to focus on the details of the trauma. It results in a relaxed, healed nervous system, allowing us to respond differently to the world. Research has shown that EMDR can process a single trauma within three sessions in 80-90% of participants, and it can help combat veterans and those with PTSD.

What is trauma? 

  • Trauma can be something that happened (bullying, judgment, abuse, or fire), OR more profoundly, trauma can be something that didn't happen (like neglect or chaotic-inconsistent parenting).

  • The interpretation of this trauma is stored in our system as an unprocessed event.

  • Trauma is how we store an event. Something that doesn't make sense is not stored or integrated; it hangs out. Our brain is always on alert to protect us from future events. Trauma is like an ice chunk in the back of our brain, causing a clog. 

  • Unrelated life stressors can trigger a warning signal to our nervous system about this event.

  • When our nervous system is triggered, we may feel out of control, overwhelmed, angry, or sad. We are triggered because we are hijacked by an old warning system designed to keep us safe.

Why doesn't talk therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) heal trauma?

  • Here is the problem: talk therapy, while helpful in providing insight, does not heal trauma.

  • You could spend 22 years talking and still experience trauma triggers.

  • Trauma is not stored in the frontal lobe/insight mind/rational mind. Instead, trauma is stored in the primitive brain.

  • You can't talk your way out of it. The neural networks have been changed, and our alert system has been triggered.

So, trauma treatment needs to happen beneath the thinking level, at the nervous system level. EMDR can heal trauma.

What is EMDR?

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a mental health therapy that allows people to heal from the symptoms and emotional distress that are the result of disturbing life experiences.

  • EMDR does more than reduce symptoms; it gets to the root and allows for more profound growth and change.

  • EMDR is used to treat more than complex developmental trauma; it also helps clients with low self-esteem, attachment wounds, difficulties in relationships, and self-regulation issues.

  • EMDR follows an eight-phase protocol. The process includes taking a history, preparation, identifying targets, actively processing the past-present-future aspects, and ongoing evaluation.

  • Target processing includes bilateral stimulation (BLS), which involves eye movements, taps, or tones while the client concentrates on various aspects.

  • I use tone and bilateral tappers for my in-person sessions and tones and eye movement for my online clients.

  • Although every client is unique, the average number of EMDR sessions is between 4 to 8 sessions.

  • Each EMDR session lasts about 90 minutes.

  • EMDR is recognized as an effective form of treatment for trauma and other disturbing experiences by organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the World Health Organization, and the Department of Defense (DOD).

How does EMDR work?

  • EMDR focuses on soothing the early warning system that engages the nervous system. Imagine that you have an unconscious defender that reacts to protect and defend you from anything bad happening again. EMDR calms and distracts the defender so that we can heal the wound.

  • EMDR is non-verbal; it is a way to let the system relax and reprocess the trauma.

  • Trauma work with EMDR does not need to focus on or rehash the gory details of what happened.

  • EMDR results in a relaxed, healed nervous system. We should not be exhausted living in survival or safety mode. When we are not defended, we respond differently. After EMDR, we will have a more skillful way of dealing with the world.

Research on EMDR

  • Repeated controlled studies have shown that a single trauma can be processed using EMDR within 3 sessions in 80-90% of the participants.

  • Another study, funded by the HMO Kaiser Permanente, found that 100% of the single-trauma victims and 77% of multiple trauma victims no longer had PTSD symptoms after only six 50-minute EMDR sessions.

  • In another study, 77% of combat veterans were free of PTSD symptoms in 12 EMDR sessions.

  • A 2021 meta-analysis revealed that there were a high number of studies reporting positive treatment effects in pain, anxiety, depression, substance use, and stress-related disorders after EMDR.

  • Chen Y-R, Hung K-W, Tsai J-C, Chu H, Chung M-H, Chen S-R, et al. (2014) Efficacy of Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Patients with Posttraumatic-Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103676.

  • Scelles, C., & Bulnes, L. C. (2021). EMDR as treatment option for conditions other than PTSD: A systematic review. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 644369.


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