EMDR: Effective, Efficient Intervention for Trauma
By Shannon Lebak, LCSW
I have been a therapist for more than 15 years and I have come to realize that most people have experienced trauma. The misconception assumes trauma equates to PTSD. This is not true. Not everyone that has experienced a trauma will have a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In fact, some will have few symptoms at all. In reality, trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing event”.
Think back throughout your life. Was there ever a time you have experienced something deeply distressing or disturbing? A car accident? The death of a family member? Being bullied in school? These events can change the way we perceive the world. They change the way we act and react to others. The events in our life can cause many adverse reactions – depression, anxiety, poor focus, relationship problems, and yes, even PTSD. Once I explain this to people you can almost see the weight lift off their shoulders.
Cameron – EMDR Client
It reminds me of a former client, Cameron (named changed to protect her privacy). She was struggling with intimate relationships. She found herself isolating from others and was often very angry/easily irritated. She would often avoid social situations altogether. I recommended EMDR therapy. At first, she was reluctant but I provided her some basic information to get started.
What is EMDR?
EMDR is short for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. The theory behind EMDR believes successfully processed memories are stored in the memory system. These are integrated with other memories that are similar to these experiences. When we experience a situation that causes us to be highly emotional or causes a great deal of emotional distress, these memories can be inadequately processed and thus stored improperly. When we are faced with a similar situation again we are “triggered”. The brain associates to this maladaptively stored situation and we react in a way that is inappropriate or abnormal for the situation itself.
For Cameron, it was yelling, crowds, loud noises, and arguing that often caused her to have a heightened startle response and intense anger reaction.
EMDR is a comprehensive form of therapy that uses bilateral stimulation (in combination with CBT, trauma informed therapy, talk therapy, etc) to address the physiological storage of memory and how it informs experience. To simplify, the memory is re-opened and processed effectively, removing the maladaptive response (e.g. intense anger or quick startle) that was initially created by the high level of emotional arousal.
Cameron – EMDR Results
Cameron was still confused but also willing to try when she learned it was coupled with CBT and other forms of therapy. After many hours of training, consultation, and practice, I still find it hard to describe how this works in simple terms! But after using EMDR, she was able to connect the sudden loss of her husband to the fear of intimacy. She was also able to overcome her fear of social situations by connecting this fear of crowds/loud noise to the fear she experienced as a child when her parents would fight/yell.
EMDR is not for everyone but it is an effective intervention especially delivered in a safe environment like New Directions Counseling. Call us for more information or an appointment. 724-934-3905
Myths of EMDR:
There are times when saying what something isn’t is more helpful in understanding it. We posted the first EMDR blog (click here) conveying what EMDR is and how it helped out Cameron with her struggle. Now let us share some of the myths of EMDR and misconceptions that might prevent people from exploring this useful tool.
EMDR is not hypnosis.
The client is awake and alert during the entire session. The client has complete control of the entire session. Many safeguards are put in place so that, in the event someone does want to stop (which is an anomaly) they are able to do so at any time. The therapist cannot “make” the client do anything they do not want to do.
EMDR does not recover repressed memories.
The brain is doing only what it is able to and feels comfortable doing. I know this sounds strange, but our brain is a fantastic protective tool. EMDR only assists the brain in reprocessing unstable processed memories. If the brain has locked away a memory, it has done so for a reason. This therapy will not unlock something that it is not ready for. Only time will do that. I have never had a client randomly unlock repressed memories through reprocessing that they were not working to try to remember in the first place.
The reprocessing phase does not start in the first session.
I have many clients anxious that they will be forced to relive their trauma in the first session. This is in no way true. It is a multi step process. There is a foundation that sets up a safe space by doing a thorough history before moving on to the reprocessing itself. The client feels comfortable with the therapy before it begins.
EMDR is not just for severe trauma.
It can be used to work through anxiety, OCD, depression, and other maladaptive behaviors. These behaviors started somewhere and the belief is that if we return to where they started, they can be changed through that reprocessing. It does not have to be a PTSD situation.
EMDR does not have to be the only form of therapy used in session.
I have many clients that jump back and forth from session to session. People’s lives go on. If something comes up between sessions that needs to be addressed, we can do so and return to EMDR at a later date. There is no rule that applies as to how often EMDR sessions have to be done.
EMDR Myths Conclusion
In the time I have been doing this therapy with clients, I have found amazing results. My clients that have gone through the phases of EMDR have left with increased awareness of how their past has contributed to their current problematic behaviors, relationships, and poor coping tools. It gets them thinking about ways to make changes in their lives. I have yet to find another form of therapy that has the ability to elicit this type of change in the short period of time that EMDR does!
Interested in EMDR? What to find out more? Contact New Directions Counseling Services and one our experts Shannon Lebak, LCSW for more information. 724.934.3905 or click here.