Dr. Maria D. Reyes
You might have heard of EMDR, had a friend who tried it, or heard how effective it can be, but what exactly is EMDR? It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing and is a system developed by Francine Shapiro to aid in processing and organizing traumatic experiences. The end goal of EMDR therapy is to help traumatic experiences be integrated into a more cohesive narrative that will allow the person completing the therapy to function more fully.
When is it helpful?
EMDR is recommended most often for situations where the symptoms one is experiencing stem from unprocessed trauma or a difficult life experience. It’s a somatic, or body-based form of therapy, which means that it addresses the nervous system from a body up approach, rather than the brain down approach that talk therapy takes. Conditions that are frequently addressed by EMDR are PTSD, anxiety, panic disorders, and depression.
A defining element of a traumatic experience is that it overwhelms your nervous system’s capacity to cope. This can be a one-time occurrence, such as a horrible accident, or it can happen on a more ongoing basis, such as in cases of childhood neglect or abandonment.
Your body’s ability to recover from a stressful event is governed by your amygdala (the base of the brain responsible for a more primitive fear response), the pre-frontal cortex (which is responsible for analyzing and making sense of behavior) and the hippocampus (which helps with memory, learning, gathering information from past experiences).
Together these parts of your brain can process and sort through traumatic experiences and bring an individual back to a baseline of felt safety, instead of their nervous system being stuck in fight or flight mode.
However, in many cases, trauma overwhelms the individual’s capacity to cope and can get “stuck” in our body. In this scenario, it’s as if one is reliving the same traumatic experience over and over. A trigger activates the brain pattern associated with the traumatic event and the body reverts to the felt sensations of intense anxiety, anger, fear, etc., even when the danger is not present.
For example, say that you had a near-death experience in the hospital. It’s 6 months later, but if you drive past the hospital, you will have a panic attack. You start to avoid that section of town to avoid having to feel the uncomfortable symptoms associated with your intense anxiety. Even something as simple as a blood pressure cuff could elicit trauma symptoms or intense anxiety.
In a scenario like this, you may be cognitively aware that the hospital is not dangerous, that driving past it poses no danger, but feel unable to stop your anxiety.
These intrusive symptoms related to an unprocessed trauma are exactly the type of thing that EMDR is well suited for. Often talk therapy can resolve the issues in your conscious thought, but because the amygdala, your brain’s “alarm system” is still screaming “Danger! Danger!” it can be difficult to resolve symptoms until your brain is allowed to process that the event is in the past and you are now safe.
How does it work?
The goal of EMDR is never to erase or eradicate memories of difficult experiences, but to remove the intense emotional charge from them so that as they are processed you can integrate them into a cohesive narrative.
The process begins with a thorough case history and a period of building resources. The preparation phase is essential to ensure that the person completing the therapy does not feel re-traumatized by the processing. The goal is for there to be the minimum amount of exposure to the distressing memory/experience needed to process and desensitize it.Once the therapist has moved through the first phase of taking a case history and helping a client build resources to feel safe and grounded, then the actual processing of the traumatic material can begin. There is no strict timeline for how long each of the phases of therapy will take, this is dependent on an individual’s needs and experience.
However, a skilled EMDR practitioner will not push someone too quickly through the process and will be attentive to a realistic pace. If we return to the earlier example of a traumatic hospital experience, that would be the “target” of the re-processing. The practitioner would ask the client to focus on a particular portion of the memory or experience and then process that target.
When processing the memories or experience, the practitioner will use bilateral eye movements (hence the name of the therapy) or other bilateral stimulation. They will either move their finger in front of the client’s face from side to side or make use of auditory or sensory bilateral signals – usually headphones with alternating sounds or vibrating tappers you can hold in each hand. This activates different portions of the brain, allowing them to “talk” to each other so that the trauma can work through the body and resolve itself.
A client may experience distress while re-processing, but the goal of the therapy is to always stay within a window of tolerance where the distress is not too high. The therapist’s job is to assess if a client is moving out of that window and have the tools to bring the client back to a more stable state.
This distress might take the form of body sensations, images, increased heart rate, etc., but the goal is to allow those things to move through the body so that the brain can categorize them and allow the intensity of the event to dissipate.
How long does it take?
One of the next questions after “what is EMDR,” is “how long will it take?” This depends on the type of experience you are processing. For a single event trauma, it might only take 1-2 sessions of actual EMDR work after you complete the initial phase. For more complex developmental trauma it could take much longer, but there’s no set answer to this question.
Your practitioner should be able to give you a more realistic idea of a time frame once you have started care. While EMDR is not a quick fix, it has proven to work much more quickly for PTSD than other forms of therapy, with less distress to the individual.
The Bible and EMDR
While the Bible does not directly address this form of therapy it does speak of God’s heart for the broken-hearted and fragmented individual. God does not desire for His children to continue living in perpetual anxiety. Because this is a broken world, things like trauma exist and it is not sinful, but wise to seek care.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound. – Isaiah 61:1
PTSD and anxiety can be their own prison, and many who suffer from past trauma feel trapped inside of those experiences, with no way out. God desires our freedom, and one of the most beautiful parts of Christian counseling is that it can incorporate tools like EMDR alongside one’s faith.
The resources that you build in the early phases of EMDR can be as much connected to your spiritual life as you’d like, and many find that God shows up in incredible ways during their experience. The idea of a somatic approach is in line with God creating us to be body, mind, and soul. An approach that respects the role our brains and bodies have in healing from trauma is in line with a God who himself chose to take an embodied form and sympathize with human weakness.
EMDR International Association. 2021. About EMDR Therapy. [online] Available at: <https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/> [Accessed 29 November 2021].
“Marble”, Courtesy of Joshua Woroniecki, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Trauma”, Courtesy of Susan Wilkinson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Enjoying the Morning Sun”, Courtesy of Arnel Hasanovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Mental Health”, Courtesy of Total Shape, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
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