Less Talk, More Activation: EMDR in the Treatment of Trauma and Beyond

By: Kari Mika, MA, LCPC, NCC, ICAADC, CCTP, ACS; EMDR trained,

Picture this: You’re sitting at a red light on a pleasant spring evening.  The sky is clear, and even though the sun is setting, it’s still light out.  Your windows are down as you enjoy the cool evening breeze, and the radio is playing one of your favorite songs.  The light turns green, and you begin to ease into the intersection.

Just then, a flash of red zooms into your line of sight.  A mid-size SUV has just run the red light, just barely missing your front bumper as it invades oncoming traffic.  You were lucky, but an oncoming pickup truck is already at cruising speed.  Knowing that a crash is imminent, you clamp your eyes shut and turn away, as if that will stop it from happening.  That’s when you hear screeching tires followed by the crunch of twisting metal and breaking glass.

Cautiously opening one eye, you turn to see the red SUV on its side and the pickup truck’s smashed front end spun in the opposite direction it had been coming from, smoke rising from its engine.  There’s broken glass everywhere, the smell of burnt rubber permeates the air, and bystanders are beginning to close in on the scene.

Now it’s a week later, and you’re having trouble sleeping. You can’t listen to your favorite song without breaking into a cold sweat, and the sight of a red SUV brings you right back to that awful scene – the smoke, the broken glass, the smell of burning rubber, and that horrible crunching sound…

Why does this happen? Simply speaking, when something traumatic or disturbing happens, the amygdala (the fight/flight/freeze part of your brain) is activated, while the neocortex (the logical part of your brain) goes offline.  We go into “survival mode”, acting on instinct and adrenaline rather than emotions and coherent thoughts.  This also impacts the way we store memories.  In these situations, the brain can continue to hold onto the experience in a way that includes the original picture, sounds, feelings, sensations, and/or thoughts.  That’s why remembering those events can make you feel like you’re actually still there.  Essentially, the information gets stored in the emotion center of your brain rather than in memory storage where it belongs (Luber, 2003).

Understandably, traumatic experiences can be difficult to talk about, which poses a challenge in traditional talk therapy. Enter EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which involves minimal talking and can offer a rapid resolution of symptoms. EMDR is a therapeutic approach that is designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories. Using a structured sequence of simple questions followed by bilateral stimulation (systematic activation of the right and left sides of the brain through eye movements, auditory tones, or tactile taps), EMDR seems to stimulate the stored information in order to let the brain reprocess the experience and “refile” it in memory storage.  

Since its initial innovation for the treatment of trauma in 1987, additional studies have found EMDR to be effective for a wide variety of concerns, including substance use disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and phobias, chronic pain, anger management, and so on. Clinicians qualified to provide EMDR have received intensive, specialized training through the EMDR International Association (www.emdria.org).

Luber, M. (2003). Handbook for EMDR clients. USA: EMDR International Association