How EMDR Can Help People Overcome Trauma

Written by: Alexa Mellman, M.S.W.
How EMDR Can Help People Overcome Trauma

Over the past 20 years, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has gained increased recognition as an effective treatment for individuals grappling with the debilitating effects of trauma. Developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro, EMDR has since revolutionized trauma therapy and provided hope for countless individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other traumatic experiences. This article explores how EMDR works and its potential in helping people overcome the burdens of trauma.

Understanding EMDR

EMDR is a psychotherapy approach that integrates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy and bilateral (left – right) stimulation to facilitate trauma resolution. The therapy aims to reprocess distressing memories, alleviate associated emotional and physiological responses, and develop adaptive coping mechanisms. Benefits of EMDR include:

  • Resolving Traumatic Memories: EMDR helps individuals safely reprocess traumatic memories, allowing them to transform from vivid and distressing experiences to more distant, neutral, and integrated memories. This process reduces the emotional intensity associated with the trauma, enabling individuals to regain control over their lives.
  • Decreasing Emotional Distress: EMDR facilitates the release of pent-up emotions associated with traumatic events. By revisiting the traumatic memories in a safe therapeutic environment, clients can confront and process their emotions, leading to a significant reduction in distress and anxiety.
  • Reinforcing Positive Beliefs: Traumatic experiences often lead to negative self-beliefs such as “I am not safe” or “I am unworthy.” EMDR helps clients challenge and replace these negative beliefs with more positive and empowering ones. As a result, individuals experience a greater sense of self-worth, security, and resilience.
  • Enhancing Coping Mechanisms: EMDR equips individuals with new coping strategies and skills to manage distressing situations. By reprocessing traumatic memories, clients develop healthier and more adaptive responses to triggers, enabling them to navigate daily life with increased confidence and emotional stability.
  • Widening the Scope: EMDR has shown effectiveness in treating a range of psychological conditions beyond PTSD, including anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, and even performance anxiety. The therapy’s flexibility allows it to be tailored to suit various individual needs.

The EMDR Process

During an EMDR session, the therapist guides the client through a series of structured phases. Initially, the therapist and client work together to identify and target specific traumatic memories, negative beliefs, and related physical sensations. Next, the therapist will work with the client on resourcing – ensuring that they have the coping skills, emotional resilience, and support they need to feel safe while revisiting traumatic memories. In the next phase, bilateral stimulation is introduced through eye movements, tapping, or auditory cues, which help activate the brain’s natural healing processes.

Bilateral stimulation is believed to mimic the rapid eye movements (REM) experienced during sleep, a crucial phase for memory consolidation. This stimulation enables the brain to process distressing memories more effectively, shifting them from a state of dysfunction to a healthier adaptive resolution.

Finally, the therapist will work with the client to reinforce the preferred ways of responding to triggers, making it even easier and more natural-feeling when faced with stressors that previously elicited involuntary reactions.