Some people thinking of embarking on EMDR treatment may be reticent at digging back into past trauma, wondering whether this may actually re-traumatize them and make them worse. Is there any truth to this? Is there any need to be afraid of EMDR therapy?
The reality is that whilst EMDR therapy can be difficult, it is also a treatment that profoundly heals a lot of people who undertake it, resolving trauma to resolution in a way that other forms of therapy often struggle to do.
Whilst it can temporarily make you feel uncomfortable during the process, this is not permanent and many patients who undergo the treatment report a deep feeling of liberation and unburdening from their trauma once the processing has taken place.
It is an unfortunate reality that trauma has to be re-accessed and re-experienced to some extent in order to be fully healed with EMDR. However safeguards are also built into the EMDR process to ensure that the process does not become overwhelming and the patient can stop the process at any time.
Many EMDR therapist will also train the patient in various guided visualization and calming techniques to quickly allow them to return to a state of calm after each session, so they can resume with their normal lives.
The whole approach of EMDR is focused on allowing the patient to revisit and process the trauma, but do so with a clear sense of power and control that often wasn’t there when they initially experienced it.
In this sense EMDR can be a difficult but ultimately deeply beneficial process, that many people report was well worth it despite the initial difficulties of revisiting traumatic life experiences. EMDR practitioners are also very positive about the process, since they can also see the beneficial impact it can ultimately have in people’s lives. Let’s look at the process in more detail.
How EMDR Works – a Brief Summary
We will briefly summarize how the EMDR process actually works, since this will also shed some light on the full nature of the process for those who may be reticent about how the treatment works. See our full article on the EMDR process for more details; here are the general eight steps of the treatment:
- Client History – Identify target memories.
- Preparation – Prepare the client appropriately for the therapy.
- Assessment – Fully assess and evaluate target memories, feelings, beliefs etc.
- Desensitization – Use eye movements or other forms of bilateral simulation to process memories.
- Installation – Install positive beliefs about self to replace negative beliefs and affects associated with memories.
- Body Scan – Eliminate any remaining physiological symptoms with further bilateral stimulation.
- Closure – Return client to safe calm equilibrium as session ends.
- Re-evaluation – Check that all aspects of memory have been fully processed.
Readers can see from this general summary that there is actually much more to the EMDR process than just eye movements, which are only a small part of the total treatment. Much of the treatment involves reinstalling healthier, more adaptive beliefs in place of the trauma once processed, and also evaluating the internal state of the patient to make sure all aspects of the trauma have been resolved.
The entire EMDR methodology has been carefully and rigorously develop over several decades, much if it guided by the founder of the treatment Francine Shapiro. It is very well tested and highly regarded therapy, to the extent it is an officially recommended treatment for trauma by the World Health Organization. As such there is nothing to fear from the process as long as it is guided by a qualified therapist.
Safeguards Built Into the Process
The EMDR treatment now follows a very well established and defined process, with all EMDR therapists undergoing rigorous training in correctly administering the treatment. As a result, all practitioners are well aware of the potential dangers of tapping into unresolved trauma and are well trained in handling any difficulties that come up.
Part of the process also involves ensuring the patient always feels comfortable enough and sufficiently in control of their experience to continue the treatment. A crucial aspect of the EMDR process is that the client remains in control of the process and has the power to stop it at any time.
EMDR practitioner Dr James Alexander goes through this point in great detail during the first ten minutes of the video just above. In truth, it is very rare in his experience for clients ever to feel the need to stop the process. However, they always have the power to do so if ever the internal experiences that are triggered inside them feel overwhelming and too much to handle in that moment.
Another way of looking at this is that the EMDR process is specifically designed to allow people to revisit traumatic experiences, but do so with a very real sense of power and control that wasn’t there the first time. James Alexander mentions this in the above video; the video just below also has an excellent quote on this positive aspect of EMDR.
“As I always say with clients, (EMDR is) just going to help you look at it as a rerun and not as if you’re seeing the movie for the first time. When you see a movie for the first time, you don’t know what’s coming, and you’re stuck in that anxiety of ‘What’s happening? What emotions am I feeling? What am I seeing?’
Whereas with a rerun, you know what’s coming. You know what’s happened to you, you know where you are, and you know you’re moving forward. That’s the goal.”
The Only Way Out is Through With Trauma
It is an unfortunate fact with trauma that the only way to fully heal and resolve it is to re-experience it to some extent. Talk therapy may provide some benefit but ultimately is unlikely to heal trauma to the extent EMDR can.
Trauma cannot always be overcome or “crushed” with logic and reason alone. It often has to be dealt with on it’s own terms. In this sense, the only way out is through for many people hoping to fully recover.
For sure, the process can be difficult whilst you are working through the trauma. However, once it has been processed to resolution, patients will feel a great deal of unburdening in relation to the trauma, meaning that it is now just another memory. The emotional sting has been taken out of it. It no longer bothers them in the way it once did and it can be much easier to move on with their life.
Another very important benefit to EMDR to stress is also the ripple effect, which means that processing one or a few major traumas to resolution within each category of trauma (eg. rejection, abandonment, verbal/physical abuse etc) tends to also process all other similar traumas in that class of experience.
In other words, you don’t have to work with every single tramatic experience in your life with EMDR; you just have to work with the key standout experiences and this will have a flow on healing effect to all similar experiences. This makes for very efficient therapy and makes sure the client does not have to revisit all the trauma in their lives.
This is a hugely positive aspect to the EMDR process, which is not evident in other forms of therapy. Whilst there is some difficulty involved, this ripple effect ensures that the client does not have to revisit all the unpleasant experiences in their life history for wide scale healing to occur. It is the most effective and efficient treatment psychology has so far come up with for dealing with trauma.
Discuss Any Concerns With Your Therapist
You can of course also bring up any concerns or questions you have about the process with any therapist you decide to consult on the subject. See our find a therapist page for links to resources to help you find a therapist trained in administering EMDR in your area.
Any EMDR therapist you commence treatment with will almost certainly go through any issues of safety and dealing with uncomfortable feelings that come up during the process. They will also likely take steps to implement guided meditations or visualisations to bring you back to state of calm towards the end of sessions as well.
Put simply, there are safeguards built into the EMDR process that all trained therapists will be well aware of to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible and never gets to a point where it is overwhelming the patient.
Testimonials on the Safety & Effectiveness of EMDR
Another thing to be said in favor of EMDR is that the vast majority of patients are very positive about the process once they have undertaken it, often reporting liberation from traumatic memories which often been troubling them for many months or years.
Here is a selection of some video testimonials of successful cases of EMDR. Click on the links to pop up videos.
- Account of the life changing effects of EMDR from a patient of James Alexander in Australia.
- Testimonials on the effectiveness of EMDR from several female patients.
- 30 minute interview on an EMDR success story.
- Trauma expert Vivian Kulaga’s own account of using EMDR.
- Many more testimonials can be found online.
See also this summary of some resources gathering together different research studies into EMDR:
- Interview with EMDR founder Francine Shapiro on it’s effectiveness.
- Seminar by Francine Shapiro going through the EMDR process and research showing it’s effectiveness treating different kinds of psychological conditions.
- See this video where Dr Andrew Leeds goes through some of the research into the effectiveness of EMDR
- More from Andrew Leeds on EMDR as a very effective treatment for addiction.
- Brief interview with addiction recovery center specialist on EMDR for addiction.
- The EMDR Institutes’s page gathering together research papers on EMDR.
- See also our individual articles on EMDR for Trauma, Anxiety, Phobias, Addiction and Depression for more on each of these.