In the United States, one in three women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). When sexual abuse happens, many people having difficulty coping with the experience or express their feelings in a healthy way. The result is a life of feeling fear and shame as well as experiencing depression and anxiety. NSVRC reports that 81% of female victims and 35% of male victims will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The fear and shame make it difficult to talk about the experience and prevents reaching out for help. Please know, you are not alone and is possible to heal.
What is EMDR and How Can it Help?
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy technique that has been successfully used to treat people who suffer from anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional issues. Most of the research proves it to be effective with PTSD. Before EMDR, these issues would be treated through cognitive behavioral therapy alone. While this treatment can be successful, it often takes many sessions for maximum relief.
EMDR, on the other hand, is considered a breakthrough modality because it can bring quick and long-term relief from emotional distress. Of course everyone’s experience is different and effectiveness can depend on a number of factors including history of trauma.
When we experience trauma, such as sexual abuse, the coping capacity of our brain becomes overwhelmed. Thus, we experience the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Through EMDR therapy, people can reprocess traumatic information until it is no longer disturbing to them or impact functioning in their daily lives.
What is a Typical EMDR Therapy Session Like?
While EMDR will generally use an integrative approach to therapy, it also focuses on some unique techniques. In particular, the client will participate in a form of bilateral stimulation while, at the same time, focusing on specific elements of the trauma memory.
Bilateral stimulation (BLS) is often left-right eye movements. This includes following the therapist’s fingers, a wand, or using a light bar. However, the therapist may use other variations of BLS. These forms include back-and-forth sounds with headphones and/or alternating tactile simulation by tapping the back of the client’s hands or using a handheld device that vibrates.
Before starting the actual processing of the trauma, therapists will usually build up a client’s “resources.” This aspect involves first focusing on coping strategies and even using the BLS to enhance positive strengthens and skills to help manage symptoms.
Although the therapist will need some information about the incident(s), what’s different about EMDR is that you don’t have to keep telling your story over and over again. Although there will be moments of intensity during the process, you won’t have to spell out all the details. This therapy can be especially helpful for folks who have a hard time talking about it and/or don’t want to share all the aspects of the experience.
How does EMDR work?
It is believed that EMDR creates change to the “wiring” in the brain. This helps people integrate and understand memories within a larger context of their own life experiences. Often, when triggered people can logically and intellectually understand something, but it might not feel true to them. For example, they might know that a situation is safe, but they feel like they are in danger. EMDR works to make connections in the brain so the thinking and feeling can be linked.
EMDR does not take memories away, but allows them feel less intense or triggering. It essentially allows someone’s perspective to change; help them know that experience is not happening right now. In the case of sexual abuse/assault, a person will still know the experience was negative/bad, but they won’t have the same negative feelings, sensations, reactions and thoughts about it.
This process is more than a set of techniques. It is a way for all people to understand their own human potential. Beyond the reprocessing of traumatic events, EMDR also allows individuals understand and shift any negative self beliefs they may be holding onto, such as “I’m not good enough,” “I’m dirty,” or “It’s my fault.”
In this way the therapy not only helps people move through big, traumatic events in their past but also smaller chronic ones that influence their perception of themselves and their world. This can ultimately lead to significant positive change in their lives.
How to seek EMDR therapy?
If looking to start this type of therapy, it is essential to find a clinician who has completed an EMDRIA-approved basic training and/or is certified in EMDR. It is important to be certain they have the proper education, knowledge and experience to provide this specific type of treatment.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual abuse and is interested in exploring EMDR treatment, please contact me. As a Certified EMDR therapist, I would be happy to discuss how this technique may be able to help you.