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  • Writer's picturewendy thompson

How to heal from trauma

Updated: Mar 17, 2021


“I was told by my doctor I need EMDR,” is a common statement I hear from clients. A doctor or mental health professional often advises patients that EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing) will help them resolve their symptoms of trauma.

Some of these clients experience hypervigilance (being on alert), disturbing memories, flashbacks, triggers, disturbing thoughts. These are all symptoms of traumatic experiences - whether it is a recent car accident or a painful childhood - that in many cases are not effectively resolved by so-called talk therapy. EMDR is recommended as a front-line treatment by the World Health Organization for PTSD. It was initially developed as a PTSD therapy (20 years ago) but has since been used in other applications to treat a variety of experiences (anxiety and depression for example).


There has been a lot of research on EMDR showing its efficacy. One of the most fascinating research experiments, conducted by Dr. Daniel Amen, involved comparing the brain scan of a women with PTSD prior to EMDR therapy and after. In this brain scan, the picture on the left shows over activity in parts of the brain related to PTSD symptoms. The picture on the right, shows how this overactivity PTSD symptoms have been resolved after only 4- 90 minute EMDR therapy sessions. (Source Dr. Daniel Amen)

The first research about EMDR was conducted by the therapy’s creator, Dr. Francine Shapiro. EMDR was the result of Shapiro’s famous “walk in the park” in 1987 - she was walking and noticed that eye movements seemed to desensitize feelings associated with painful memories. Using this as a premise, Shapiro developed a complex psychotherapy designed with strict protocols to be used by trained professionals to help clients resolve traumatic experiences.


Her first studies (a case study & then a controlled study) utilizing the foundations of the existing protocol (then called EMD) showed that EMD (Eye Movement Desensitization) was effective in significantly reducing distress. After Shapiro’s studies, more emerged validating the efficacy of EMDR. By 1991 the name was changed from EMD to EMDR to reflect the “reprocessing” aspect of the therapy, which by now had been finely tuned with the input of clinicians using the therapy and research. Since then, hundreds of research studies validate the EMDR’s success in helping people heal. The research has expanded from working primarily with PTSD clients. It can help with the following experiences:



Car accidents


Panic Attacks


Dissociative Disorders

Disturbing memories



Performance Anxiety

The therapy involves an eight phase protocol. The first phase is history taking, which is an in-depth look at a client’s background, life experiences, memories. The clinician will also administer some assessments to further explore the client’s history. The second phase, preparation, introduces the client to techniques that help with emotional regulation, which will be used later on in the process. In this phase the client also goes through the mechanics/setup of the eye movements.

The third phase is assessment, which involves exploring & identifying the material that will be processed. This involves selecting a “target.” The fourth and fifth phase, desensitization and installation involve using eye movements to lessen the disturbance and install a more positive cognition. Body scan, is phase six and involves a scan of physical sensations (these could be linked to the material just processed). The seventh phase is closure and the final phase is reevaluation.

The amount of time it takes to go through these phases depends on the a number of factors. Some people do not need a lot of sessions, others may engage in therapy for months depending on each person’s history and situation.


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