Events That Can Cause Trauma and Treatments That Can Help EMDR Therapy

By Julia Thomas

Updated April 02, 2019

Reviewer Kristen Hardin


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EMDR therapy, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, is a type of psychotherapy that specifically treats those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Currently, this is a commonly recommended form of treatment for military veterans as well as individuals with PTSD regardless of the cause of the disorder. Common causes for PTSD are a traumatic event where the individual has experienced directly, or indirectly, a life-threatening event, a natural disaster, or rape. There are some misconceptions that only war veterans have PTSD, but this is not true. A car accident can cause PTSD as can a house fire. EMDR is not just for PTSD, but also for panic attacks, addictions, and eating disorders.

The Brain When Traumatized


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When a person is significantly distraught, the brain becomes unable to perform tasks as well as it did before. The memories of disturbing moments are retrieved and relieved when the individual does not want to recall these memories. The reliving of these memories can cause significant distress to the point that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for the person to meet their responsibilities and carry out their basic tasks. It can cause the person to go to great lengths to avoid reminders of the event. For example, if someone is part of a shooting, the sound of anything resembling gunfire will bring about these memories. That person is very likely to avoid events they would have previously attended, like a 4th of July Celebration. Hearing a car backfire could send them into a panic attack. If the triggering event happened at work or school, the individual could have a very difficult time returning to that place and if they do, have a difficult time concentrating and working to their full potential.

These disturbing memories can greatly affect a person's well-being in a negative manner. In most cases, these memories can be triggered unexpectedly, which can bring a person back to their original severely stressed state at the moment of the memory. At this point, the individual is overwhelmed and, without proper treatment, likely does not have the tools to move forward and may feel hopeless and helpless over these memories.

The effect is overwhelming as it can change the way one perceives the world around them and it could change the way that others see them. For example, if someone were to be socially active and giddy, after a traumatizing event, such as a panic attack, they may become reserved and sensitive.

Post-traumatic stress can be treated by certified professionals as they use EMDR therapy.

EMDR Therapy Techniques


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The purpose of EMDR therapy is to change the way a person reacts to a traumatizing event or memory rather than eliminating or avoiding the disturbing memory, which cannot be done, at least not successfully. It is very different from talk therapy, which would focus on the memory and processing the memory. With EMDR, the therapist will have the client recall the disturbing event, and then lead the client through a series of eye movements in order to reduce the anxiety and negative emotions surrounding the event.

As was said in the article, "What is the Actual EMDR Session Like?", EMDR is often compared with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. That is, it centers on the focus of your eyes.

Though EMDT therapy follows a series of steps, one of the key steps is desensitization. During this step, the therapist will present a client a series of scenarios in which the client will rate their scale of disturbance upon. The rates of disturbances can go as low as 0 or no disturbance to 10 or the highest disturbance.

The focus or movements of the client's eyes during this time will be monitored. Throughout the sessions, the therapist will suggest new sets of eye movement for the client to try. These shifts of focus will change until the rates of the client's disturbance are reduced to 0.

Another successful technique in EMDR therapy is the body scan.

Part of the reactions to disturbing relived memories is the movements, especially when a person was physically affected during the traumatic episode. When triggered, the body can react in response to the associated memory. Body scans are used to identify physical trauma, but desensitization can be used to treat these conditions as well.

After a successful EMDR session, the client should be able to sense triggers and not feel any, or significantly less, emotional trauma or muscular tension.

It is important to note that EMDR is relatively new. It was started in 1989 and while there have been numerous studies, many of them have had a small sample size. There is encouraging research, and clients report success and significant improvement, but we still need more research to gain a greater understanding of how and why EMDR works.

Other Options for Post-Traumatic Stress Recovery

Just as with traditional talk therapy, it is important that a client feels comfortable with his or her therapist. Especially since difficult and disturbing memories will be brought to the surface, it is imperative that the room and the relationship feel safe. Should it be the case that the relationship between a client and therapist is poor, the EMDR therapy may not be successful.

In any EMDR therapy, during the first and last few sessions, there should be some interaction between the client and the therapist in terms of the client's post-traumatic stress and the treatments that will be given to the client. Due to this, being comfortable enough to express yourself plays a large role in the success of EMDR therapy. Do not be afraid to tell your therapist if it is not working for you. You cannot get the help you need if your therapist does not know it is not working.

It is unknown how effective EMDR would be online without the office setting since this is a very interactive process between the therapist and the client. However, if you have questions about EMDR or want to explore your options for other ways of coping with PTSD, panic, eating disorders, or addiction, you have the option to try online counseling. BetterHelp is an online platform where thousands of trained therapists are ready to be matched with you. You can work with your therapist anywhere you have an internet connection and all you need to get started is a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

This could also be a good option for you if you have tried EMDR and had some success but still have symptoms of anxiety and panic. More traditional therapy could give you the additional tools and skills you need to finish healing. PTSD is complex and there is no one size fits all approach, but, with PTSD, the sooner you reach out, the better your chances are at healing faster and more effectively. It can be scary and overwhelming, but there is help available. Reach out today and get started with a professional counselor.


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