Trauma and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing)

The following information is a collaboration of information on EMDR, Trauma and Dr. Dan Siegel’s neuroscience research. This information is focused to explain the relationship between EMDR, trauma, Postpartum issues and attachment. I combined this information to better explain the model I operate from when working with my patients.
National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) study reported that EMDR was superior to Prozac in treating trauma.

What Kinds of Problems Does EMDR Help?
EMDR has been found helpful in the treatment of anxiety, performance anxiety, stress, phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, postpartum depression and anxiety, trauma of any kind, emotional residues of an abusive or neglectful childhood, anger, episodic rage, low self-esteem, depression, complicated grief, addictions, performance anxiety, and relationship problems.

Trauma comes in many forms. The definition of trauma is any event that has had a lasting negative effect. We look at trauma in the forms of BIG-T and Small-t traumas.

These single events can result in symptoms described as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), including difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts of the incident, an avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma, irritability, changes in personality, feelings of sadness and hopelessness, an exaggerated startle response, and even thoughts of suicide.  This can include:
Natural Disasters
Violent Sexual Assault
Physical, Sexual or Emotional Abuse Combat – trauma
Armed Robbery
Assault and Battery
Car accidents
Domestic Violence
Death of child, family member Birth Trauma
Still Birth
Emergency C section
Home invasion

These are the traumas of life. The truth is, you can’t get through life without experiencing small traumas. Sometimes these small traumas build up over time and create a difficulty in our day to day functioning. When unresolved, small traumas from childhood or even adulthood fuel discomfort in our present-day life and lead to unhealthy choices in our lives.
They can sabotage our desire to make healthy, adaptive adult-driven choices. Research has shown that a lifetime of small-t trauma is more likely to result in symptoms of complex Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder than single-incident “Big-T” traumas. Examples of small-t traumas are so wide-ranging that providing a list is difficult because trauma is defined by the way a person experiences an event, not by the event itself.
Family of origin dysfunction
Parental Alcohol or Drug Abuse
Eating Disorders
Feelings of Abandonment
Unresolved childhood disturbance and Distress
Attachment Issues
Panic Attacks
Difficulty in Intimate Relationships Medical Illness and anxiety
NICU experiences
Emergency C Section Anticipatory Anxiety with VBAC Toxic work environments
Reoccurring pregnancy issues Distressing/Difficult pregnancy Fertility issues

The body uses a processing system similar to digestion in order to resolve upsetting experiences. When the mind/brain processing system functions properly we extract useful information from our experience. What we learn from the experience allows us to move forward. When upsetting memories are processed, the related emotions, beliefs, body responses, and thoughts are transformed becoming healthy and adaptive.
Sometimes negative experiences remain unresolved, leaving a residue of emotion to dominate our daily lives. The system becomes “stuck” as if it were choking on trauma and often requires assistance in order to get it moving smoothly again. EMDR and other modalities are utilized to facilitate the movement. Processing occurs on a physiological level and allows new associations, insights and emotions to emerge spontaneously. EMDR involves a very specific set of procedures to help this “digestive” function in the mind/brain which neurobiologist refer to as “information processing.”


Trauma and other disturbing life experiences are stored in the wrong form of memory. When memories are stored in explicit or narrative memory they can be remember without pain. When stored in implicit or non-declarative memory they hold the emotions and body sensations that were part of the event(s). Because these memories are not able to connect with other, more helpful information, they remain isolated from other life experiences in our memory networks.
i.e. even though we can look at things rationally where other people are concerned, and know they aren’t to blame for certain things, we can’t view ourselves in the same way and we feel at fault. To summarize, memories stored in the wrong form of memory cause suffering.
EMDR may be particularly effective at promoting neural integration through the ways in which its phases activate distinctive processes in the brain, such as thoughts, emotions, memories, and bodily sensations. As the phases progress in EMDR, neural integration may be proposed to the brain process that is being facilitated during the various phases of treatment. The result of effectively promoting neural integration would be both the alleviation of the symptoms and the development of an enhance sense of well-being internally as well as more rewarding experiences interpersonally.

Dr. Dan Siegel
Clinical professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine Executive Director Mindsight Institute

We work with the processing system in order to access the troubling experiences.
The intrusive thoughts, dreams, disturbing emotions and sensations are all products of the physical problem that can be helped without resorting to drugs or alcohol to mask the pain.


Initial sessions are required for the therapist to understand the nature of the problem, assess the suitability of EMDR, determine the specifics events (or images) to be targeted with EMDR, and orient the client to the process.

In an actual EMDR session, the client focuses on a selected event and the therapist helps the client center on him/herself witnessing the event. Next, bilateral stimulation with eye movements, or alternating taps or beeps, is begun. Periodically (every 10 seconds to 2 minutes), the therapist interrupts the bilateral stimulation to ask about the client’s current state and further guide the process. EMDR of the selected image or events ends when, after repeated rounds of viewing the image, the client is able to do so with a positively enhanced sense of her/himself.
Several components are key: 1) the client focuses on something significant, an event or
an image; 2) the client centers on him/herself while focusing on the image; and 3) the client connects with the emotions /feelings associated with the event and where they are present in his/her body 4) bilateral stimulation utilizing the EMDR device is started. What clients experience during bilateral stimulation varies from client to client and from time to time. The outcome is that clients effectively reposition themselves with respect to the event and feel enhanced emotionally and cognitively.
It is important to schedule your follow up appoint to check in on your EMDR session.