Learn about EMDR

11 Common Questions about Healing Trauma with EMDR

You can probably think of a time when you were truly terrified. If you can recall it calmly now that’s a good sign you’ve healed from the experience. You feel secure, knowing the bad experience is in the past.

Ideally, our brain and body work together to restore calm after danger so we feel safe again. We may even gain more confidence, too.

Sometimes, however, the nervous system reacts in ways that block the resolution process. For some people, a terrifying episode instills an ongoing sense of danger, even after the threat has passed. These people may seem highly reactive, or often anxious. It’s as if the nervous system continues to function on high alert.

An ongoing struggle to restore a sense of safety and calm may be a sign of trauma. If you keep having trouble coping with intrusive memories, negative or scary thoughts, or self-doubt, trauma may be a factor in your life. That’s when working with a therapist trained in EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — can really help.

Here are 10 important questions and answers about EMDR and its effectiveness to heal trauma:

1) Why is it called EMDR?

EMDR is named for the eye movements that therapist Francine Shapiro first discovered in 1987, which relieved her own distress. She then developed a whole system for resolving disturbing thoughts that other therapists could use.  However, as Shapiro noted in her book on EMDR, she would rename it if she could, because other factors work besides eye movements:

Eye movement is only one form of stimulation used and only one component of the complex approach. … [I]f I had to do it over again, I would rename the approach “reprocessing therapy.”

2) Who can EMDR help?

EMDR can help people who struggle with a wide variety of stressful issues. Currently, therapists mostly use it to reduce or eliminate symptoms of trauma.

Trauma can come from unresolved experiences and feelings that threaten your sense of wellbeing or safety in the world. EMDR can help with issues that haven’t gotten any easier with other therapies or other modalities.

3) Why does trauma respond to EMDR?

EMDR can help weaken stressful symptoms associated with trauma, so they interfere less with daily life.

Trauma can come from a single obvious incident, or stressful conditions endured for a long time. Many people are plagued by symptoms of trauma but don’t realize it.

Trauma symptoms may develop after experiencing something clearly dangerous, like a life-threatening event, or witnessing one. Being in a car accident, in combat, or watching someone get beaten or injured are examples of obvious danger. Some people call this “Big T” trauma.

Less visible sources of trauma can alter your sense of safety just as much. These include being bullied, feeling unsafe or rejected, or being in a relationship that has left you feeling isolated or bad about yourself. Growing up with substance abuse, domestic violence, or chronic illness are more examples of hard-to-see sources of trauma.

Some people call less obvious sources of trauma “Little T” trauma. However, it’s important to realize that size doesn’t matter. Any trauma can affect the body and mind.

Trauma symptoms can drive people to use behavior that is numbing, self-harming or compulsive, because they don’t know any other way to get the relief they need to function each day.

EMDR was developed to help stimulate new pathways in the brain that allow a person to resolve trauma, regardless of the source.

4) Can EMDR treat trauma from a specific event?

Some people experience trauma symptoms after a specific event, for example, a car accident.  A person with single-incident trauma might experience: 

  • Inability to feel safe getting in a car again
  • Emotional overwhelm going past a certain intersection
  • Terror hearing the same song that was playing when the crash happened
  • Re-triggered fears from related sights or smells (like the smell of gasoline)
  • Sleeping issues: sleeping too much, not sleeping enough; night terrors
  • Flashbacks or difficulty concentrating during the day
  • Fears or anxiety triggered by related people, places, things or situations
  • Depression or sadness

Trauma really affects all of our senses.  The sight, sounds, smells, or sensations on the skin can create deep memories of a situation when trauma occurred and can also trigger the emotions felt at the time.

Living with these symptoms and coping behaviors may seem unavoidable. But people do find relief when the cause of the stress – the unresolved trauma – is resolved.  EMDR helps the brain make new connections in the nervous system to fully process the trauma.

5) Can EMDR treat trauma symptoms without a clear trigger event?

Trauma shows up in a huge range of symptoms. People develop very personal coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, even if they can’t trace their stress response to a single event. Coping mechanisms can take almost any form:

  • Drug use
  • Overwork
  • Eating disorders
  • Constant worry
  • Poor impulse control
  • Chronic anger
  • Compulsive gaming
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Behavior to sabotage relationships

These are just a small sample of ways people try to cope with overwhelming stress as best they know how.

EMDR can help resolve these symptoms by helping a person notice beliefs that are blocking the ability to lower stress.

6) How does EMDR work in the brain?

EMDR is actually a series of 8 steps. The reprocessing steps use bilateral stimulation. An EMDR therapist guides a person in moving their eyes back and forth, or hearing alternating beeps through headphones, while the person re-thinks the distressing thought or memory.

EMDR works by activating both the logical and emotional sides of your brain to help you see a fuller, clearer picture of the situation.

In everyday life, the strong emotional reactions of trauma normally shut down your ability to think. When you are responding with emotional intensity the rational part of your brain temporarily goes offline. This is a normal survival response. But it can make recovering from the survival response more complicated sometimes.

With preparation and with bilateral stimulus in therapy, EMDR helps the brain heal itself by making stronger connections between the rational and emotional parts of your brain which helps make sense out of what happened and put the feeling of danger fully in the past.

7) Does EMDR really work?

Research shows that EMDR can make the healing happen faster than other therapies or no treatment at all.  The EMDR Institute reports:

  • Multiple studies show that 84%-90% of single-incident trauma survivors became free of symptoms after only three 90-minute sessions.
  • For combat veterans with PTSD, one study showed 77% became symptom-free after 12 EMDR sessions.
  • In another study of people with phobias about going to the dentist, over 83% were making regular dentist visits one year later after 3 sessions of EMDR therapy.

EMDR helps your nervous system activate a natural healing process so that you can resolve the trauma according to your specific needs.

8) Does EMDR work all by itself or do people also need other kinds of therapy?

EMDR can work all by itself.  If a person has really good social support and healthy relationship support outside of therapy, it may not be necessary for them to have a variety of ongoing treatments. 

While it is possible to see a therapist just for EMDR, it’s not typical to use only one method. Better results often come from using EMDR with other therapies. EMDR is not exclusive of other approaches or methods. We can use EMDR as part of an integrated treatment plan.

9) What other therapies work well with EMDR?

EMDR can complement just about any other therapeutic approach.

I like to combine EMDR other with sensory-motor work. Sensory-motor approaches help involve different parts of the brain and body to help manage intense responses. Such work might include yoga and mindfulness meditation, for example. These modalities can help reactivate energy when the brain has learned to shut down.

On the other hand, when our brain has learned to respond by overreacting in fear, fight or flight, we can use sensory-motor work to teach the body how to calm the whole nervous system down, so the reactions are not controlling us.

10) What can a person expect when asking for EMDR therapy?

If a new client asks about EMDR, I explain that we won’t expect to start in the next session.

Preparation work and time are necessary to set the stage for EMDR. First we need to know if that is an appropriate methodology for the person.

A good EMDR therapist will check to make sure that a person can regulate their own emotions so they don’t become re-traumatized with the process of targeting disturbing experiences to process.

We work ahead of time to build up the client’s ability and resources to manage stresses. Then if we decide to use EMDR a client is prepared to respond well.

11) What results can a person expect when EMDR is done correctly?

Some people see small changes after one session. Others see a dramatic difference in how well they can handle situations that used to unnerve them. Some people need multiple sessions before they notice a difference. It’s important to understand that results vary greatly from person to person.

If EMDR is done properly and completely, you shouldn’t continue to have symptoms disturbing enough to still bother you. It might take some individuals longer, depending on how strongly connected the symptoms are within your nervous system. Eventually, you should be able to get on with living and not feel a level of discomfort, intrusive thoughts, or panic still controlling you.

The goal of EMDR is not to forget the experience, but to take the emotional overwhelm and reactivity out of it.

We are here to help

Please know you can heal from unwanted habits or reactions, even if you have been unable to change them before. Contact us to learn about EMDR and other therapies we provide in Alexandria, Virginia 703-768-6240