EMDR and Trauma
In the context of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Trauma is conceived
as any experience that activates the fight-or-flight response but does not resolve. For example:
"A soldier is traumatized by a bomb that has detonated in front of him. When the bomb goes off,
the soldier dives for cover. When the smoke clears, he realizes his fellow soldier has been killed.
The soldier is numb, paralyzed mentally, and thinks "I survived at the expense of my buddy".
When the soldier returns home, he is startled by loud noises, especially explosive ones such as
overhead planes and cars backfiring. He dives for cover when he hears a low flying jet overhead.
He feels guilty. His guilt intensifies when he watches the news and hears about the deaths of
soldiers. He has difficulty falling asleep and when he does fall asleep, he frequently has
nightmares. When he is awake, he is irritable, hypervigilant and anxious, and sometimes
In the EMDR context, this trauma is an experience which has not been put into narrative memory.
The experience is still alive, and is activated by triggers in his current life. It is as if the bomb is
continually exploding in the present. The experience is encoded with negative beliefs about
himself such as "It's my fault that my buddy died" or "I don't deserve to live."
WHAT IS EMDR?
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a trauma protocol that works with
memory networks. It is a tool for processing experiences that are still "alive", as with the soldier
who dives for cover when a plane flies overhead, and putting those experiences into narrative
memory. During EMDR, the soldier is guided by the clinician, through his traumatic experience so
that it no longer is disturbing. So that the negative belief "I don't deserve to live" can be replaced
by a positive belief, such as "I am a survivor" or "I deserve to live." When the experience is fully
processed, the soldier may still feel sad or angry about what happened, but the experience is no
longer disturbing or "alive". It is in the past: it is now a memory and he can live in the present
without nightmares, flashbacks, or feelings of guilt.
THE EMDR CONTEXT
EMDR is implemented in the context of a therapeutic relationship with a clinician that has been
properly trained through EMDR certified trainings. You should never do EMDR with a
clinician who is not trained and certified through EMDRIA approved trainings.
Before implementing EMDR, the clinician takes time to get to know the client and to ensure that
the client is well informed, feels safe, and empowered to engage fully in processing, The
clinician will take a thorough Trauma and Attachment history. The clinician will also facilitate client
awareness of the client's disturbance levels, and teach self-soothing techniques which may
include installing a SAFE PLACE, and/or installing a psychological CONTAINER in which the client
can store traumatic experiences so that they do not continue to interfere with present day
functioning. The clinician will reinforce existing client strengths and install positive coping
mechanisms so that the client can manage daily stressors. The clinician takes care not to engage
in processing until the client is ready and addresses present stressors before moving into
processing disturbing material from the past.
HOW DOES EMDR WORK?
EMDR replicates REM or Rapid Eye Movement which we all experience in deep sleep. We
hypothesize that psychological content is processed in deep sleep. That is why professional
athletes, for instance skiers, will watch movies that simulate the downhill course the night before
they perform. During REM sleep, the athlete will "ski", psychologically, the course he is to
perform. On the day of performance, the skier is able to precisely follow the course encoded in his
memory during REM sleep. In EMDR, as in REM, the client moves his eyes from left to right and
back again, stimulating both sides of his brain and integrating left brain logic with right brain
creativity. Thus, EMDR is also known as bi-lateral stimulation of the brain.
Although eye movements are most typically used; tapping, auditory clickers or buzzers placed in
the client's hands, alternating left to right can be used if eye movements are not comfortable for
Through EMDR, the client is safely supported by the clinician while he or she travels through the
traumatic experience. EMDR is often more effective and efficient than talk therapy because it
targets a specific memory and then processes it integrating all aspects of the targeted
experience: images, thoughts, sounds, smells, emotions and body sensations.
EMDR is completely client centered. Once EMDR processing begins, the clinician stays out of the
way of processing. The clinician implements the bilateral stimulation, stopping after sets that
typically include 6 to 30 sets of left right (bilateral) movement. At each break, the client is
instructed to take a deep breath, and notice thoughts, feelings, sensations. With each set, the
client experiences the traumatic material with less disturbance and more empowerment. The goal
is to reach a zero level of disturbance on the memory, and to replace the negative belief, e.g.
"I don't deserve to live" with the positive belief, e.g. "I survived, I deserve to live."
Clients who have struggled through years of talk therapy often report significant relief, and the
ability to experience peace and joy after going through EMDR treatment, sometimes after just a
few sessions. EMDR is getting past your past so that you can be fully present to your