While the emotional and psychological toll of trauma can often seem like a heavy and sometimes even unbearable weight, healing beyond it is indeed possible. A groundbreaking therapy that has helped millions of people overcome the negative events in their past and seize a happy future is known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
According to Rebecca Kase, licensed clinical social worker, EMDR consultant, and founder of EMDR training program Kase & CO, memories stored dysfunctionally can cause chaos in your life. EMDR enables your nervous system to process them again the right way, making symptoms subside.
How trauma hijacks the present
According to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, “Trauma is a risk factor in nearly all behavioral health and substance use disorders.”
“You may suffer from panic attacks, depression, anxiety, or PTSD,” Kase explains. “Some people become suicidal, while others might form addictions.”
Seventy percent of Americans will experience a traumatic event over the course of their lifetime. That means 223.4 million people are at heightened risk of continuing health problems due to an adverse event.
According to Kase, these conditions develop because extremely frightening or stressful events overwhelm our nervous systems, which cannot process those memories adequately as a result. These poorly stored memories inflict further confusion and distress on the individual.
“They get stuck and force us to relive the traumatic events, including all the difficult feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations of the past,” Kase says. In effect, the past is allowed to hijack the present, generating more trauma.
Survivors of traumatic experiences can feel trapped in a nightmarish cycle. “We repeat what we don’t repair,” Kase says. She gives the example of veterans returning from war zones — fireworks and other unexpected sounds can give them flashbacks to battle. In the same way, survivors of sexual assault may be triggered by a scene on a television program.
But it’s never too late to reprocess traumatic memories in a productive way. EMDR presents an easy and simple, yet tremendously effective, method of repairing trauma.
How EMDR heals trauma
“EMDR enables you to reintegrate the negative experience so that the nervous system understands it’s over and done,” Kase explains, “which lets you move on.” EMDR therapy follows a rigorous multi-phase approach to addressing problematic memories.
First, the key memories that cause continued distress are identified and targeted for treatment. “During the treatment session, the client is instructed just to notice whatever unfolds as they bring the memory back into consciousness,” Kase explains. “The goal is to be present with the memory and let it flow, along with any other feelings, thoughts, and sensations that emerge. While we don’t explicitly instruct clients to practice mindfulness in EMDR, in that way, there is an element of mindfulness in the protocol.”
While the patient remembers the traumatic event, the therapist stimulates one side of the patient’s body and then the other with sounds, taps, or other means. This is called “bilateral stimulation,” and it serves to interrupt and break up the memory.
“Bilateral stimulation physically prompts the brain and nervous system to move through the memories differently and store them in a form that no longer harms the person,” Kase says.
What it’s like to do EMDR
Unlike other forms of therapy, EMDR does not require patients to concentrate, do homework, or construct a narrative around the traumatic events they have experienced. “There’s no element of force, and the therapist doesn’t direct the intervention,” Kase notes. “The nervous system will do whatever it needs to do, much like your finger knows how to heal from a paper cut. It’s a very natural process of unfolding. EMDR therapists just enable it to happen.”
According to Kase, everyone experiences EMDR differently, according to their own holistic process. “Some people say it’s like watching a movie,” she says.
EMDR can also be used to anticipate and prepare for stressful future events. “In these cases, the patient imagines going through that experience as though they’re doing a dress rehearsal,” Kase explains. “They envision using coping strategies, effectively developing their capacity for strength, competence, and resilience ahead of time, which makes them best able to weather the event itself when it takes place.”
Evidence shows EMDR works
EMDR has been studied extensively, and time after time, research shows it helps people put their past back where it belongs: in the past. As one researcher writes, “Twenty-four randomized controlled trials support the positive effects of EMDR therapy on the treatment of emotional trauma and other adverse life experiences relevant to clinical practice.”
Whether you or a loved one has experienced trauma, EMDR can help. It doesn’t matter if those difficult experiences happened a year ago, 10 years ago, or even further back than that. With EMDR, traumatic memories recede into the background, and their symptoms begin to disappear.