Can Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy Help Me?
By Katie MacDougall, LPC
I sat in a hard, blue chair as I listened attentively to a description of a therapy technique I couldn’t comprehend. The daughter of two attorneys, my cynical side likely caused my resting facial expression to include raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Yet, the faith-filled, hopeful part of me wanted to believe my professor as she explained how the Lord miraculously used Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) to help people experience freedom from the most complex traumas. Little did I know this brief introduction to EMDR during graduate school would not only deeply inform my work as a clinician, but radically transform my own growth and freedom as a follower of Jesus Christ.
When a potential client reaches out to me to begin EMDR, I typically find they fall into two different groups. The first group is represented by a person that has always been reluctant to try therapy. This reluctance may come from the worry that they will be in therapy for the rest of their lives, the financial burden seems astronomical, or they just don’t buy that talking to a licensed therapist weekly or biweekly will be any different than meeting a friend for coffee. Someone—be it a friend or professional—likely recommended EMDR to the person reaching out. Slightly skeptical and slightly hopeful, the person reaches out and asks to set up an appointment or ask a few questions.
The second group is the one represented by a person that has tried numerous types of therapy, but has not had much success. Once again, this person is a mix of skeptical and hopeful. They typically come discouraged by previous experiences, and are afraid to put hope in any kind of therapy. Similar to the first group, the person representing this group likely found EMDR via recommendation. Occasionally, they also find EMDR by their own research. If you are reading this article, it is possible you fall into one of these groups. Let my first paragraph of this article reassure you that I, too, was skeptical when I first heard about EMDR. I hope learning more about it will help you determine if this technique will help you.
What is Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR)?
As I have been practicing EMDR for years and seen numerous clients utilize EMDR in their counseling journeys, I find that simply describing EMDR as a well-researched trauma therapy does not answer enough questions. True, it is one of the most extensively researched therapy techniques based on loads of science, but it is essential for a person considering the use of EMDR in their own therapy to know what it actually involves. Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score and leading trauma researcher, describes EMDR more specifically and realistically than most:
“EMDR is a bizarre and wondrous treatment and anybody who first hears about it, myself included, thinks this is pretty hokey and strange. It's something invented by Francine Shapiro who found that, if you move your eyes from side to side as you think about distressing memories, that the memories lose their power.”
Van Der Kolk’s description empathizes with the person first considering EMDR, recognizing that it’s weird! Though I have spent countless hours doing my own EMDR therapy and partnering with clients on their EMDR journeys, I still think it’s a little weird.
Beginning EMDR looks a lot like most other therapy models. The first phase of EMDR is called history and treatment planning. Like most other therapy models, this includes gathering personal and family information about the client receiving treatment. I typically use a timeline method to keep information organized in a chronological format, but there are many methods of organizing a client’s history. There are eight total phases of EMDR. The second and third session also look quite similar to other therapy models. These preparation and assessment phases include the client gathering more tools to cope with the difficulties of diving into traumatic memories in phase four. While bilateral stimulation (eye movements, tapping, or sounds) may be used before phase four, the first three phases often feel more like traditional talk therapy. Phase four is the phase that breeds the most questions from potential clients. It is the phase where the therapist asks the client to focus on a specific event causing distress while engaging in bilateral stimulation. The client is entirely conscious while either looking at the therapist’s fingers, listening to a noise, or following some sort of kinesthetic cue. Focusing on the particular memory while engaging in the bilateral stimulation requires the client to disclose less about the traumatic memory, while experiencing faster, more lasting relief. Phase five through eight of EMDR basically include making sure there is nothing else to process with a specific memory. Once phase eight is complete, the client and therapist will work together to determine what other memories need to be processed. At the point all memories are processed, the client and therapist will determine what other needs the client may have. If there are no other needs, the client will no longer need to come to therapy to maintain his or her freedom from trauma.
After reading more specifically what EMDR is like, you may be able to see that the wonderful overshadows the weird. As a Christian, this immediately makes me think of Jesus. At first, His upside-down kingdom seems weird. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord.” Jesus just being a moral man isn’t a possibility when you really examine His life and ministry because of its radical, countercultural nature. Yet, there is incredible beauty and wonder in His life and ministry. In fact, the ultimate life-giving, transformative life that ever was, is, and is to come is Jesus’ life.
Who Does Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) Help?
In John 9, Jesus spoke truth to the blind man, took steps to heal him, and told him to take a step of faith. Although Jesus could have snapped His fingers or wiggled His nose and healed the blind man, He chose to take the blind man on a journey. Sight for a blind man, especially in Jesus’ time, was without a doubt a ticket to freedom. The blind man was up for a journey. He was motivated by freedom. So, who can this therapy model help? EMDR can help anyone up for the journey. It is proven to work with adults, children, and even couples. Anyone impacted by an emotionally charged memory and willing to face that memory head-on can experience relief from EMDR. In other words, this therapy model can help the person who is motivated. The person who is willing to do what it takes to get better. When Jesus said to the blind man, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam,” that step must have been terrifying for the blind man (verse 7). Scripture implies that the blind man did not know how to see when he went to the pool, only after he came back. If someone is willing to go into difficult, traumatic memories with courage and motivation, EMDR is a therapy model the Lord can use to help bring freedom. As an EMDR therapist, I have seen Jesus’ life-giving, transformative nature in the counseling room countless times. I have seen lies overpowered by truth. I haven’t seen mud and spit bring sight to a blind man, but I have seen fingers and eyes bring light to darkness. At Morning Light Christian Counseling, all of our therapists are trained in EMDR and we would love to help you begin the courageous work required to find freedom from your difficult, traumatic memories.