What is EMDR? Can I use it? Will it work for me? That is what we’re talking about in this blog post.
What is EMDR?
I get a lot of questions about EMDR because EMDR, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a modality that is very prevalent in the therapy world, and thankfully has become mainstream. This is, in my professional view, on the edge of how far that Western mind-based, neck-up thought cognitive therapy has started to get down into more of the mind and body-based processing of trauma.
There are other modalities like somatic experiencing and other things that I think are also good. EMDR has become really widespread and it’s pretty easy to find a practitioner. It’s also relatively straightforward for practitioners who are therapists, counselors, and psychotherapists who get trained in EMDR. So good news, it’s easy to find!
Will EMDR work for you?
So will it work for you? This is a great question. In this blog post, we’re going to talk about the pros of EMDR and what I see as the cons. I am a Licensed Acupuncturist. I’ve been doing Mind-Body Medicine with people for over a decade and my specialty has really become the weird and tricky things that nobody could figure out.
Usually, if you are someone that has experienced something like a trauma, whether it’s “trauma with a big T” or “trauma with a little T”. Essentially, trauma with a big T is the thing that we all label as trauma—some sort of accident, abuse, rape or psychological thing that you’ve been through, if you are a soldier coming back from a war zone, if you experienced or saw terrible human things happen, that’s trauma with a big T.
But what’s also true is that we have trauma with a little T and this could be anything that caused your body to believe that it wasn’t safe. That could be some offhanded comment that you heard your father make when you were four, it could be the emotional vibe of your household growing up. Those are also little T traumas that happen. Even being embarrassed at school can be a little T trauma in the way it encodes in the body! This is an important thing to think about when we talk about EMDR.
How does EMDR work?
What happens in EMDR is that a therapist will help you think about a traumatic memory that happened that is usually trauma with a big T and they’ll do some sort of eye movement.
That could be:
- Following a finger.
- Stimulating the left and the right side of the body alternatively, as in tapping on one side of the body and then tapping on another side of the body rhythmically.
- A sound stimulus as in using headphones that give you sound on one side and then on the other side.
- Using a device that vibrates on one side and then vibrates on the other side.
All of these things are creating an external stimulus to help your brain get over the stuck part of where it was processing a memory.
How does Trauma work?
Here’s what we need to know about the general sense of how the body encodes when a trauma happens. Let’s just take big T trauma. An event happens and your body is in a heightened arousal state. Maybe you go into fight or flight. Maybe your life was even threatened. Maybe you felt like it was the body’s alarms go off in really strong ways.
The working hypothesis of EMDR from the therapy world is that in some way, your body didn’t quite get to complete that action and it got stuck. Just like if you got a cut, but you didn’t actually get to heal it. That unprocessed wound in the system of activation gets a little stuck and that causes a lot of suffering. It can cause flashbacks. It can cause a lot of difficulty in the system.
In a way, thinking about the trauma experience with your mind while also going through external stimulus helps the body on different levels to complete that thought and get it out of the system. It’s almost like cleaning out the cut so that the body can actually close the wound and finally finish the healing.
Research has shown that for what we call “big T trauma” that just was one incident that happened, EMDR sessions can be very effective over a period of time, usually 6-12 sessions. If you are someone who has been through a big T trauma, and you’re having some PTSD-type (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms, you’re having flashbacks, you’re having a lot of stress in your life, you know that that’s a part of your picture, EMDR could be a really good help for you.
What's Lacking in EMDR (my thoughts as a Subtle Body expert)
Now, where I see EMDR fall short and how it’s different from the realm of body-based healing that is my specialty are as follows:
- EMDR is coming from the therapy world where they don’t really understand the subtle workings of the body like the 4,000-6,000 years of tradition of Acupuncture.
There are natural medicine traditions like Ayurveda from India and Chinese medicine from China that really understand how the subtleness of the mind and the body interact. They understand how the emotions and the body are intricately linked together. When you understand those things for thousands of years, you naturally come up with human treatments that really help both the mind and the body together.
- Another downside of EMDR is that it still come from and generally employed in a tradition that is mostly used to approaching things from the level of the mind, where we try to understand things mentally added with a little bit of stimulation. It’s helpful but it’s not quite as deep.
- EMDR has to be done generally with a practitioner. It’s not teaching you how to actually free yourself from these issues or how to do it at home. You’ll be discouraged from actually thinking about those traumas on your own because it might reactivate you and you won’t have the tools in the moment to safely process them and get them out. You don’t want to re-traumatize yourself or get stuck again.
What we do in Subtle Body work is teaching you the language of how your body holds and encodes things and giving you the step-by-step process to actually find the source and let it out of the body. That’s a big difference. Many of the folks that I work with have done EMDR and found that it was helpful, more helpful than talk therapy which I definitely agree with but they felt like it only got them to a certain point. So that’s something to consider.
It might be a good place to start but if you feel like it’s taken a little bit of the edge off of the top, but you still got stuff to work on, you might want to head more in a Subtle Body direction.
- The last thing that I feel like is missing in the EMDR picture is getting to the source and being able to direct the process yourself.
In EMDR, you have to start with a terrible traumatic memory that happened and then you’re always stuck with, “well, what comes up around that?” The truth is that the things that might be tripping you up in your everyday life might be connected to that, BUT they might be connected to something else as well. Unless you have the ability to trace things down to the actual source that your body is holding onto, which is always different than where the mind things it’s sourced in, then you’re going to be just rearranging and lightening things a little without ever actually getting to the source. This is like going out into the yard and chopping off the heads of all the dandelions thinking that they’re not going to come back and then you notice a couple of weeks later, they’ve re-sprouted. You feel better for a period of time. Maybe if you pull out the dandelions, then it takes them maybe a season to come back but ultimately, if you haven’t gotten to the deep root, you might notice that there’s some aspects of the pattern that are coming back.
Now for many things, EMDR might nip it in the bud and that’s great. I like it as a modality and I will recommend it to people. I think if you’re going to do therapy and if you’ve had trauma (especially trauma with a big T), EMDR is a great place to start. I recommend you look for a therapist near you.
If you’re ready for the next level or you have a sense that it’s more complicated than just your big T trauma, or maybe you haven’t had major big T trauma but you feel still like there’s stuff stuck in your system, this Subtle Body approach of a deeply integrated mind-body healing and learning how to actually free it from your own body with support in an ongoing way might be for you.
You are a soul with a body and I’m wishing you great things!
Disclaimer: This program is not intended to be a substitute for professional mental health or counseling services. No practitioner-patient relationship is established and the training content is for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and nothing here is intended to diagnose, cure or treat any disorders.