What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  It is a treatment modality that was originally developed to treat trauma/PTSD.  It has an 8-phase protocol that is used to work with the underlying causes of PTSD.

By now, you should have read something about what causes PTSD or how treatment works.  If not, you might want to check out one of those links.

Somatic Psychotherapy

EMDR is a somatic psychotherapy modality, which means that it works with the body (or more accurately, the part of the mind that is most closely connected to the body, the autonomic nervous system, or ANS).  When traumatic events occur, it is the ANS, not our conscious mind, that responds.  The responses are simple and very basic (most animals can do these things):  Fight, Run, Freeze or Disconnect (we call this “Dissociating”).  These responses can be very adaptive, very helpful, when we are in a threatening situation.  Oftentimes, they will save our lives.

The problem comes later–when the threat is gone.  Sometimes (not all the time), people can feel like the threat is still going on.  We call this PTSD.  It’s fundamentally an ANS problem, and to my way of thinking, an ANS problem requires an ANS solution.  That’s why I’m not a fan of just talking about the traumatic events (many therapists, for example, use a Cognitive Behavioral approach, which I don’t generally use for trauma, as I don’t think it really heals the underlying problem).

In somatic approaches (such as Trauma Dynamics and EMDR), you don’t have to talk as much about what happened.  Certainly we need to talk enough so that you can remember and bring up the memory, but it’s not about giving me the details of the event–I don’t need them.  Somatic therapies help allow the body to heal.  We have to somehow convince the body that the traumatic event is over, by allowing that part of the mind to process it.

How does it help PTSD?

EMDR helps the the mind/body resolve trauma by using what’s called bilateral stimulation.  The most common (and preferred) form of this is working with eye movements.  However, it can be done by using sounds or touch, in several ways.  Bilateral stimulation seems to allow the brain to process traumatic memories faster.  It seems to “jump-start” the healing process.

Why does it work?  We don’t know.  Actually, we don’t know for sure why any therapies work–we just know that some of them do.  We think that it has to do with facilitating communication between the two sides of the brain, which process information differently.  The theory behind this is called the Adaptive Information Processing model.  It explains how EMDR helps your brain turn your trauma from something that feels like it’s still happening into something that happened, and is over.

But you don’t need to know this to use EMDR.  All you need is a therapist who is trained in and willing to follow the proper protocol, one that you trust and who has listened well to you as you have described your issues.

Can something as strange as EMDR really work?

Short answer:  Yes.  And when EMDR works, it’s extremely helpful.  It can sometimes remove 100% of PTSD symptoms.  Of course, childhood trauma is tougher than adult trauma most of the time, and can take longer to resolve.  But still, we are talking about much less time than used to be spent on talking therapies.  In fact, many people used to be in therapy just talking for many years, never getting much better.  This doesn’t happen when EMDR works.  And the research says it works well most of the time.

What about when it doesn’t work well?  Usually there are things we can do to enhance it.  But in the final analysis, it’s up to you.  If you are one of the few people it doesn’t work for, or you’d rather not do it, that’s no problem.  There are other ways to work on PTSD that are helpful and promote healing and can allow you to be successful in reaching your goals (a reduction or elimination of PTSD symptoms).

So when we start talking trauma, I’ll start talking about somatic psychotherapies like EMDR or Trauma Dynamics.  I like to go with what works. 🙂

Childhood Trauma

What is complex childhood trauma?

Childhood usually involves a few traumatic events: accidents or injuries, unintended separations, grief over minor losses, etc. Events such as these can have some long-term impacts, but often they don’t. However, some children experience things that are usually more serious: divorce, death of a parent, ongoing abuse or neglect, a parent with addiction or mental health problems, etc. These usually involve a disruption or difficulty with an important relationship. In these cases, we talk about complex childhood trauma (or developmental trauma). [Look forward to my talking about this regularly in later posts.]


It turns out that these kinds of events or situations can have very damaging long-term impacts on a person’s health. They can increase your chances of developing things like heart disease, obesity and other physical problems as well as mental health issues like depression, anxiety or addiction. [More about the research on this.] In other words, some childhood events can create many different ongoing difficulties. Many people are unaware of this connection, including some in the health fields.

Why is this connection important? For a simple reason: treating the wrong health condition doesn’t always help. If you go to the doctor for a broken arm and she gives you antibiotics, well, your arm won’t get infected, but it also won’t heal correctly. This can happen in therapy. A person will try to get help for depression or anxiety, and they may get medication for it (which can be helpful) and may get some therapy or counseling to gain some coping strategies (which is also helpful). But if the underlying cause is childhood trauma, and that doesn’t get treated, problems often persist.


Some people say, “well, you can’t change the past, so you might as well figure out how to live with it.” In my view, that’s both true and false. It’s true that we can’t change past events, and we can’t change the way we reacted at the time, or the effects it has had up to now. But there is a lot more that can be done than just “learning to live with it.” It turns out that we can actually change what has happened in our bodies as a result of trauma.

Our bodies? That sounds weird. But let’s think about it carefully. Heart disease happens in the body. Depression affects the brain and the chemistry of the blood. Anxiety is mostly physical—heart and thoughts racing, tightness in the chest, shaking, sweating.   And most PTSD symptoms are things we can’t consciously control—flashbacks, feelings of unreality, fear, hopelessness, intrusive thoughts about the situation, etc.

Working with the body

For this reason, many of the modern, cutting-edge approaches to trauma treatment are based in the body (we say they are “somatic”).   Things such as EMDR, Yoga, acupuncture and massage all have been found to be helpful. I work with a somatic trauma therapy called Trauma Dynamics. It targets the effects that events and situations have had on our nervous systems, particularly the parts we can’t control. This somatic PTSD therapy is only a few decades old, and is still developing. But there is evidence that it’s extremely powerful, even in cases of complex childhood trauma.

So it turns out that healing is possible. We can’t change the past, but we can change the effects it has had on us. That’s good, good news for everyone.