I went through a traumatic experience when I was young, and the memory still haunts me. It can be triggered by the smallest sensations — for example, the smell of the gardenias that were growing in our yard at the time. All the negative feelings associated with the event come flooding back, and I’m overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. A friend said that Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) might help, but it sounds creepy — like hypnosis or mind control. As a Christian, I don’t want to get involved in anything like that.
We can assure you that there’s nothing creepy or spooky about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). And it’s not connected with anything that might be considered unbiblical or spiritually unsound.
Still, when considering EMDR or any professional counseling, it’s wise to find someone who shares and honors your values. You’ll want a therapist who understands that God is the ultimate source of healing — and that He created how our bodies and brains are intended to work. (For more information about finding a Christian therapist, read our in-depth article How to Find a Christian Counselor: Spiritual, Professional, and Practical Considerations.)
What is EMDR?
EMDR is a proven neurologically based therapeutic technique first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro several decades ago. It makes new connections in the brain about a traumatic event by using a process similar to the brain’s Rapid Eye Movement cycle (REM) — the cycle that your central nervous system uses during sleep to refresh, renew, and reprocess.
Evidence-based studies show that EMDR significantly reduces or eliminates ongoing disturbance from a traumatic event; it’s even used to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including war veterans. EMDR is one of the most effective and quickly relieving forms of trauma therapy known in the field of psychology today.
You mentioned that your traumatic memory can be set off by the fragrance of gardenias. This is a good example of the principle EMDR is based on. When we experience trauma, the sights, sounds, smells, physical sensations, and thoughts connected to that event can become “frozen” in the brain. This phenomenon is closely related to fight or flight, the physiological reaction that happens in response to a real or perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
EMDR uses left-to-right bi-lateral brain stimulation to get the two hemispheres of the brain “talking to each other.” The purpose is to “unfreeze” the memory and reprocess the entire event with all its associated sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
How does EMDR work?
In short, EMDR reduces or eliminates distressing emotions of a past traumatic experience so the event can now be remembered from a more objective point of view.
The goal of EMDR is not to change or erase a traumatic memory. Instead, EMDR helps to de-intensify a person’s reaction by building new brain pathways to respond differently to the memory. (EMDR is designed specifically for the treatment of traumatic memories. But it can also be used to address intrusive or maladaptive beliefs and thinking patterns.)
The process of EMDR is fairly simple. You spend one or two sessions with a qualified therapist laying the groundwork. You talk about the traumatic event and all the thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative, associated with it.
After this initial assessment, your therapist will lead you through a specific EMDR technique. You’ll name the traumatic event and decide how much the memory causes you internal distress. You’ll be asked to identify where you feel the threat in your body. Your counselor will then guide you through directed and controlled steps to help you process the memories.
The EMDR technique will be repeated until you and your therapist are satisfied that you’ve reached the desired, or maximum, results. The number of sessions will vary according to the intensity of the trauma and how safely you can work through the memories. (Your therapist can help you navigate any reactions you experience during and after EMDR treatment, such as vivid dreams and heightened emotions.)
Who can use EMDR?
EMDR isn’t suitable for everyone. Your counselor will need to evaluate your specific situation to decide whether to recommend EMDR.
For example, children younger than 10 may not be appropriate patients for EMDR even when using altered, age-appropriate protocols. Also, people who are currently experiencing trauma such as abuse, domestic violence, psychosis, or drug addiction might not be good candidates for EMDR.
In addition, EMDR won’t be successful unless the brain is strong enough to participate in reprocessing the trauma. So if you’ve had any brain injury or have other ongoing mental health or medical concerns, it’s important to get your physician’s approval before undergoing treatment.
Would you let us help?
If you’d like to talk more about your circumstances, call our counselors for a free over-the-phone consultation. They’d be more than happy to speak with you, and they can give you referrals to qualified Christian therapists practicing in your area.
You can also search our nation-wide EMDR provider list. These licensed counselors are part of Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network and say that they use EMDR in their private practices.