When it comes to trauma, traditional talk therapy has its limits. Many people find that talking about traumatic events forces them to relive the trauma, without actually helping them process it and move forward. In recent decades, alternative therapeutic approaches have gained prominence as mental health professionals seek more effective ways to address trauma. One such innovative method is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Many people think that the term “trauma” is limited to horrific events like a near-death experience, a kidnapping, or an assault. In reality, trauma extends beyond surviving life-threatening situations. It is a broad term that encompasses any experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope and integrate. That can be anything from growing up with emotionally abusive parents, to being bullied at school, to having to move to a new city, to finding out that a partner is having an affair. Since most of us suffer from one type of trauma or another, understanding what trauma is can be important for promoting recognition and healing.
EMDR is a therapeutic technique that was pioneered in the late 1980s by Dr. Francine Shapiro. Its primary focus lies in treating trauma and its associated symptoms. It allows affected individuals to process and resolve traumatic experiences, as well as the emotions and beliefs tied to them. EMDR facilitates the integration of these experiences, paving the way for emotional healing. It involves recalling and processing traumatic events from your past while listening to certain sounds, tapping yourself, and/or moving your eyes as directed by your therapist.
At the core of EMDR's effectiveness lies a profound understanding of how our brains process traumatic memories. Trauma often becomes “stuck” in our minds, akin to the clutter in a junk drawer – things we'd rather not deal with daily but can't fully discard. We also often have negative beliefs attached to traumatic memories. Although we may not be able to remember the event or may not think about it often, the negative belief remains. When we encounter a trigger that reminds us of that traumatic event, our brain throws up defenses to protect us from getting hurt again.
As an example, imagine you were the new kid at school one year and it didn’t go well. You were bullied regularly, and you felt isolated and socially incompetent. Because of this, you formed a belief that you will not be accepted in new social environments. Perhaps you believe that you are too different to fit in, or that you are incapable of making friends. Though you may not think about those experiences often (or even consciously remember them), every time you are in a new social situation, you feel anxious. Instead of trying to connect with others, you withdraw and avoid them to protect yourself. This is how unresolved trauma can affect your daily life.
The purpose of EMDR is to open up this emotional junk drawer, sort through the clutter, and finally move forward without the burden of negative beliefs and fears formed by trauma.
EMDR is designed to mimic the eye movement we naturally experience during deep REM sleep. During this phase of sleep, our brain processes and consolidates memories from our daily lives. Normal, non-traumatic memories don’t become “stuck” because they are processed and moved into long-term memory. Traumatic memories, however, are shoved into that junk drawer where your brain thinks they can’t hurt you. EMDR mimics the back and forth movement of REM sleep as you consciously recall the traumatic memory, allowing you to process and integrate it - with the guidance of a trained professional!
During EMDR therapy sessions, individuals focus on a traumatic memory while listening to certain sounds, tapping themselves, or engaging in eye movements as directed by their therapist. EMDR helps the client maintain dual awareness, which means they can simultaneously hold the distressing memory while also remaining present in the therapy session. This prevents clients from being retraumatized during the processing. So while you do have to revisit your trauma to participate in EMDR, your therapist is there to provide safeguards such as grounding tools, a safe space, breathing techniques, or even reverting to talk therapy.
Your therapist will ask you to rate each memory on a scale of 1 - 10, with 10 being extremely distressing and disruptive to your daily life. You will then work on “clearing” the memory, which means bringing that rating down to a 0. The goal is to alleviate the emotional charge tied to these memories and sever the connection between the memory and the negative belief, paving the way for healing and growth.
The important thing to know when receiving EMDR treatment is that YOU are in control. You can choose to stop focusing on a memory at any time and return to a safe space. It can be tiring, so your therapist will understand if you’d like to take a break and revert to talk therapy for a session or two. The entire process is structured around your comfort level and is tailored to your needs.
One of the most significant advantages of EMDR is its relatively rapid effectiveness compared to traditional talk therapy. Often, individuals report significant improvements in their symptoms after just a few sessions. EMDR also contributes to better emotional regulation by reducing the emotional distress linked to traumatic memories. It’s a highly versatile approach; beyond trauma, EMDR's reach extends to treating various mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders, phobias, depression, and grief. Most importantly, EMDR is a client-centered approach, which means that the therapist tailors the treatment to your unique needs and experiences.
Medens Health is fortunate to count Chiconia Anderson among our staff. Chiconia is certified in EMDR and has extensive training and experience helping clients integrate and move past trauma. In addition to being an essential part of our team, Chiconia is a psychotherapy counselor for students at Pepperdine University, where she also teaches Psychopharmacology to graduate students. She is currently working toward certification to supervise other mental health professionals performing EMDR, and intends to seek training in EMDR for groups so she can support victims of group trauma. Chiconia is adept at tailoring her approach to your unique history, needs, and conditions. You can learn more about Chiconia here!
Chiconia offers virtual EMDR therapy throughout California and Nevada. If you’re interested in trying EMDR to move past trauma, give us a call at (833) 624-5400 or get started here!
The information provided in this blog is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Reliance on any information provided in this blog is solely at your own risk. Always seek the advice of your physician or a qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding your medical or mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who is qualified to give you safe, professional, and ethical advice regarding your mental health.
If you or someone you are responsible for is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should call 9-1-1 and/or take them to the nearest emergency room.