Last year, I attended a trauma training and the trainer touched on eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). He stated something like, “It’s very simple, the client moves his eyes back and forth several times and then the feelings associated with the trauma are no longer triggered! For the deeper traumas, they may have to have the process repeated. It’s a very effective and very interesting therapy!” This tends to be how many mental health therapists view EMDR. It is an intriguing enigma because, after years of working to evolve therapy into something that is always helpful, there is finally a method that is shown to be consistently effective.
Francine Shapiro, “discoverer” of EMDR, has stated that EMDR is effective in all traumas, but that “it takes longer when you have multiple traumatic experiences because there are more memories that need to be processed.” Studies upon studies have shown the effectiveness of EMDR because it uses the brain’s natural abilities to heal itself. It is effective, but is it always beneficial?
As I’ve written previously (About PTSD), EMDR pulls the traumas that are stored in the limbic system and brings them into conscious memory, in order to be stored correctly in the cortex. This tends to be a fairly straightforward process for those who have experienced a one-time trauma in adulthood. However, because the childhood brain is so malleable, when children experience a significant trauma, their brains are forced to veer from normal development in order to process the trauma and protect the brain.
One of the very common ways children manage trauma is through dissociation. It is common for these previously dissociated memories to surface in adulthood, mostly because the brain is finally fully developed around age 25 (the topic of recalled memories is quite debated, but it is indeed common). This is a normal process as the brain attempts to bring the memories into consciousness in order to be stored correctly. Some memories become conscious, and some do not; it depends on what the brain feels it can manage at a conscious level. EMDR fast tracks this process and does not allow the brain to pick and choose which memories it is ready for. Therefore, those who have experienced complex trauma (continual trauma during childhood) may become flooded with very intense memories. The complex trauma survivors’ brains have spent years adapting to the trauma and building up walls of protection so the person can survive. EMDR reverses these protections and breaks down the very protective walls they have spent years building.
Many complex trauma survivors who have attempted EMDR have reported that it makes them feel worse and that they are unable to manage the overwhelming feelings. Recalled memories return at such a quick rate that leaves the survivors flooded. The brain is not prepared for an onslaught of memories because naturally, it unfolds trauma at a far slower process. This seems to be what the non-EMDR trained therapist does not understand; I have found myself considering referring clients with complex trauma for EMDR in the past, simply because it is known as an effective therapy for trauma survivors. Now, I realize that in the case of complex trauma, it may be more beneficial to allow the survivors’ brains to unfold the memories at the rate their brains can manage (however slow and exhausting the process may be).
While many mental health therapists are intrigued by EMDR, and rightly so, not every trauma survivor is well-suited for EMDR. Because EMDR fast tracks processing, the processing could take less time, but the process could leave the client in a heap. EMDR therapists understand this and are able to filter their clients accordingly. However, even the smallest safety-building EMDR session may send their complex trauma survivors into a spiral of the past that their minds have worked so hard to forget (I therefore recommend great caution in reading Francine Shapiro’s book, Getting Past Your Past, because it immediately teaches the basic concept of bilateral stimulation to improve safe place).
If you are interested in reading more about a personal account, I invite you to click on the EMDR tag at the bottom of this post.