If you have been searching for trauma therapy, chances are that you have come across the term “EMDR”. While there are many types of therapy that can address trauma, EMDR has become well known in the counselling world as being an excellent and fast option for processing difficult life events. But how do you know if EMDR is right for you? I hope this post will provide you more clarity and answers.
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Many clients come to counselling expecting a traditional talk therapy session. They may expect to share lots of details about their lives, and have the therapist ask stereotypical questions like, “How does that make you feel?” EMDR is not at all like this.
EMDR involves the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS) to process traumatic events. BLS is a fancy way of saying that a therapist will be adding some visual, auditory or tactile prompts during therapy. For example, you may be asked to follow a ball moving across the screen or listen to audio prompts. A shift starts to occur when you combine these sensory inputs while also thinking of a traumatic event. The understanding from EMDR creator, Francine Shapiro, is that this combination activates an adaptive neural network in your brain. What we see is that EMDR clients feel calmer when they think about these disturbing situations. To learn more about what an EMDR session is like, I’d encourage you to read this earlier post or watch the following video:
Why use EMDR?
EMDR has been proven to work quickly in processing disturbing events. This is especially the case for those who have survived a single traumatic event (as opposed to complex trauma where a person has survived years of distressing circumstances). This therapy can be used irrespective of when the trauma occurred, be it yesterday or 50 years ago. EMDR has been effective in meeting the needs of diverse clientele regardless of age, race, gender and other identifiers. Beyond past events, this therapy can also help clients work through fears of a similar trauma happening again in the future.
How to tell when EMDR is working:
For clients who have had success with EMDR, they will notice several indicators to healing:
- Clients can speak and think about these traumatic events more calmly
- Clients notice a change in their thinking pattern. Negative beliefs are transformed into more compassionate and positive perspectives. For example, a client who initially believed “I should have done more” may shift into thinking,”I did the best I could.”
- Clients notice improvements of PTSD symptoms (e.g. intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, anxieties, hypersensitivity).
- Clients’ physical pains starts to ease. They can speak about the trauma without feeling tense, clenching their muscles, or experiencing other signs of constriction.
What prevents EMDR from working?
While all of this sounds great, there are some factors that can affect whether EMDR is right for you. As with any therapy, there is no guarantee that one approach will be the miracle cure. While EMDR has a high success rate, the following points should be considered:
Before starting EMDR, clients have to be open to addressing a painful part of their lives. While this may sound obvious, I want to emphasize how incredibly hard it is to sit with memories and thoughts that you have worked to avoid. Avoidance is a natural way to manage anxiety. If we find something frightening, we protect ourselves by staying away. As with any form of therapy, readiness involves taking the chance to stop avoiding in order to address these fears. This is much easier said than done.
2. Learning to work within our window of tolerance:
For EMDR to be the right approach for you, your therapist has to ensure that you are prepared. The goal of this therapy is to process disturbing events without overwhelming you. This means being able to think about these events without feeling emotionally hijacked. The point of EMDR is not to relive the trauma, but to recognize you are in a place of safety while thinking of a difficult past experience.
If you go beyond your window of tolerance, the work will not feel safe. Your therapist will be monitoring how quickly or slowly to take trauma processing based on your emotional state. There may be pauses in treatment to help calm your system (e.g. deep breathing, relaxation exercises, calming visualizations, distress tolerance skills, etc). You may spend several sessions focusing on these calming skills before beginning BLS. This does not necessarily mean that EMDR cannot be used; however, there may be a delay in starting trauma processing.
Complex trauma and complex mental health (e.g. personality disorders, addiction) can take time to heal. Even with a fast approach like EMDR, clients may spend many months or years working through painful memories. You may have to spend a significant amount of time addressing these other mental health needs before starting to work through traumatic events. This does not mean that EMDR therapy is not helping; however, clients must be patient to work through these additional needs.
4. Current life stressors:
Are there current life stressors that are getting in the way? It is hard to focus on a past trauma if you are thinking about current financial struggles, work demands, or a recent arguments with your partner. When life feels unsafe or stressful, you may have a hard time focusing on the past. It is understandable that current needs keep distracting you. In these types of situations, you may need to pause EMDR, and address what changes need to occur today to help life feel more stable.
5. Fear of recovery:
This is a difficult point to make because the majority of people want to get better and the title insinuates that a person is avoiding healing. That is not my intent. There are a lot of changes that will happen in your life because of recovery. This may include embracing new routines after years of living a certain way. It may involve returning to work where there are old triggers and difficulties waiting. Perhaps recovery involves acknowledging that your parents were not kind or well-intentioned people. There is an understandable fear of what recovery might mean for a survivor, and those fears need to be supported and addressed prior to opening old wounds.
Is EMDR still right for me?
Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence. Not only can trauma be healed but with appropriate guidance and support, it can be transformative.Peter Levine
While the concerns mentioned above may influence your therapy journey, EMDR can still be the right approach for you. It is best to speak with your therapist about these influences in order to problem solve. The solution may be to do EMDR in a slower manner to prevent overwhelm. Alternatively, your therapist may use a combination of other therapy styles (e.g. Internal Family Systems therapy, DBT) to address other mental health needs alongside trauma healing.
Traumatic events happen to every individual, and we cannot prevent it from taking place, unfortunately. While some recover on their own, many of us experience lasting symptoms from traumatic events. If you continue to be plagued by a traumatic event, reach out for support. EMDR may be the therapy you are looking for.
All the best,