EMDR Explained

EMDR Therapy Explained

EMDR Therapy Explained

With Paul Krauss MA LPC and Joshua Nave MA LLMSW

EMDR Therapy Explained by Paul Krauss and Joshua Nave at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids


Paul: “Alright Joshua, I’m really glad to have you here in my office at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids. We’re going to be talking about EMDR therapy today. We’re in the new wing of Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids which is called the ‘Trauma Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids,’ which is under the Health for Life wing. So thank you Joshua, can you tell us a little bit about who you are?”

Joshua: “Yeah, sure, so my name is Joshua as Paul introduced earlier. I’m a brand new therapist here at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids; just moved here from Arizona. I’ve been doing infant/toddler mental health services and trauma informed counseling, specifically with EMDR therapy for the last year and a half now. Thanks for having me.”

Paul: “And yeah, you’re welcome. I have also noticed that you have also worked with adults, is that true?”

Joshua: “Yeah, about 90% of my clients right now are adults.” 

Paul: “And then you’re also specializing in early childhood.”

Joshua: “As soon as more people realize they do.”

Paul: “Alright, excellent. Well, we recently co-authored, although you mostly authored it, an EMDR therapy overview for people that don’t know what EMDR therapy is. We authored this for the Gold Coast Dulas of Grand Rapids and Kent County for their blog. So we wanted to just kinda go over a little bit about the blog that we wrote for people that are new to EMDR therapy and also maybe even new to counseling in general. So the first thing I wanted to say is EMDR therapy is a form of counseling. It is a very advanced training that most people do for hours and hours and hours and weekends after they graduate graduate school. But, I was thinking maybe you could start out by reading a little bit of the blog and then we could kinda comment on it if that’s alright with you.” 

Joshua: “Sure. Let’s start a little bit maybe just after the second paragraph here. So EMDR therapy is a physiological-psychotherapy technique that aims at unlocking the body’s natural ability to process information and heal from past trauma and current distress. So I think that’s a good place to start.”

Paul: “So yeah, EMDR therapy is definitely not a magic trick; it’s an amazing empirically proven method. We’re unlocking the natural adaptive information processing network that is in human beings and has been there since they were born. Most memories process naturally through the different parts of the mind and are often stored in the memory center which is, somewhat, called the hippocampus. Most memories are not bothersome, so what happens, Joshua, when somebody goes through a very stressful time or a traumatic experience or is under stress for a long period of time? What happens to some of those memories or thoughts?

Joshua: “Sure, yeah. Touching on what you just said, the brain’s natural job is to process information. So maybe somebody honks at you on the road, you feel startled, and your brain’s natural response is to process information. But what you’re getting at is, when our brain is engaging in just its primary area, which is to protect you. Your brain’s first job and foremost job is to protect you from stress, from danger. Sometimes when we have those situations that you talked about – those extreme moments of stress or distress or high emotional intensity – our brain can activate what’s called our fight-or-flight mode, which some of you may have heard of before. When it engages that mode, it is still taking in all of that information from the event, but it’s not processing anymore; it is focused on keeping you alive at that moment. All of that information that gets sucked into those stressful moments becomes locked in your brain. That’s why a lot of people end up having their brain continually try to reprocess that information after you’ve calmed down even though you’re not in the event anymore.”

Paul: “So, yes, and that is also known as our fight-flight-freeze response or collapse as freezing can keep you safe if a bear is going to eat you. So your brain is trying to keep you alive and the interesting thing about humans is that we have what’s called ‘meta-consciousness,’ which means that we can be aware of multiple different processes going on in our brain and body at once. We think that other animals can do the same, but we can’t communicate with them to know for sure. But that’s why we’re observing ‘oh my goodness I’m having intrusive thoughts.’ So if anybody’s ever been through a stressful thing where maybe they almost got hit by a car, you’ll notice that your brain goes over and over and over that experience, usually most people report that, for the next day or two, or a stressful encounter, they’ll go over and over and over. That’s the brain trying to reprocess and make meaning so that it can adapt to whatever happened. That naturally happens in the human body, but there are some experiences, that we could call traumatic experiences, but the problem with that is trauma is different for every person. We don’t know why certain events stick with some people and not with others and other people, obviously, the war veteren, might have an even stick with them from the war, but there are small things too: a relationship breaks up, problems at work, trouble with children, bullying. So many things can cause things to get locked in our brain in a way that, you know, during the event, your brain was adapting and trying to keep you safe and trying to protect you, but you weren’t able to process the memory. Then that memory can be, what you said, locked in the brain, but it can also be locked in the body. So, smells, or pictures, or things associated with certain concepts or past events, can then trigger a feeling of depression or a feeling of anxiety or a feeling of ‘I’m not good enough,’ or a feeling of ‘I’m not safe,’ or a feeling of ‘I should’ve done something different; why didn’t I do something different,“ or ‘I’ll never meet the right person,’ or these sort of negative narratives that get entangled with the traumatic response. So not only do we have the obvious scenario of the war vetern coming home and they hear a door slam and they jump under a table, that’s a clear example of what we would maybe call post-traumatic stress disorder. But for your average person, let’s say you almost got hit by a red car one day or you did get hit by a car and you’re not afraid to drive and whenever you see a red car, you start sweating, feeling ill, these sorts of things. So EMDR therapy is trying to help your brain reprocess events post that are still bothering you now. It could be anything from a traumatic experience to maybe a negative pattern from childhood or a negative belief system that has impacted your ability to be fully present in your life and enjoy it and be able to actually feel you’re making choices that align with your value system. 

Joshua: “Yeah, exactly. So your brain is basically reminding you that ‘oh I felt this way, I thought this way, I experienced these sensations at this stressful moment or at this point in my childhood in my past.’ And even though you’re not in that situation anymore, your brain doesn’t know that; it takes you back to that moment.”

Paul: “And that is because the brain is attempting to warn off, usually to protect us, right? Our brain is safe so it’s going back and trying to keep their human alive because the brain is alive in our skull and we’re carrying it around all day; it’s our little brain jar. It may be warning us of something or bringing us to an unpleasant experience and saying ‘don’t let that happen again.’ But the problem is that sometimes it gets out of control with certain diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, or depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. So our brain is warning us too much, it’s like on overdrive and it’s hard to enjoy your life. So let’s talk a little about EMDR therapy and then I’ll have you comment on this. EMDR therapy cease to access the processes that the human brain uses during REM, or rapid eye movement, the cycle of sleep to reduce the disturbance caused by memories, events, and thoughts that have become “stuck” or intrusively repeated in a person’s mind and also in their behavior and personality sometimes. So what do you think about that?”

Joshua: “Yeah, again, that kinda goes back to the point you were mentioning earlier. A lot of my clients have come through and they have been experiencing the same distress throughout their entire life, going back to that ‘in my family home this is what happened, this is what I needed to survive’ and that pattern continues to repeat throughout the rest of their life. They come into my office going ‘I don’t know why I keep going this way? Why do I keep going this way? Why am I this way?’ It goes back to the learned pattern that they have in their brain.”

Paul: “So they might’ve had a situation where they didn’t get along with their parents or perhaps their parents were abusive or perhaps their parents were negligent or perhaps their parents were narcissists or something. Then they made a perfectly, I mean, as well adjusted as a person working on their personal baggage, and they’re attempting to be in a relationship with that person and then they keep treating the person as if maybe they’re against them or ‘you’re just like my parents, you have the worst thing in mind for me, you want to control me’ and really the person isn’t trying to do that. But they’re, we’re using a term from high school, back-in-the-day, overhead projectors, or college classes – we project what we think is happening on to other situations. So often times EMDR therapy can help you withdrawal your projections and help you feel more present and grounded and be able to see, especially if a person is functioning as the person you want to be in a relationship with and they’re working on their stuff and ‘oh that’s their stuff, this is my stuff.’ Obviously if you’re in the relationship with the pathological person who is not working on their personal baggage and problems, then that’s a whole other issue. But with the EMDR therapy, it can also help with relationships as well.”

Joshua: “Yeah, so, to kinda summarize what you’re saying, imagine your brain is stuck in a slide show that’s on repeat over and over and over again. By using EMDR therapy and accessing that part of your brain in the REM cycle where we do our processing, we’re effectively moving onto the next slide. We’re saying ‘brain, we’re not on this slide show anymore, this is all in the past. It’s time to move on from that.’ Clients are better able to evaluate what they’re really saying, what they’re really feeling, and what they want to do moving forward.”

Paul: “So, in a sense, EMDR therapy helps us orient to the present and actually what I’ve heard reported many times is that ‘bad memories and bad experiences that used to intrude in my life actually now feel like they’re in the past. Just like old summer vacation memories are in the past, now these bad memories are also in the past.’ So let’s talk a little bit about how that works. I’m going to read for a little bit here. EMDR therapy is an advanced type of empirically validated therapy that can be utilized by masters level counselors and other practitioners with specific advanced training. Hundreds of studies have confirmed that when human beings are enduring great stress or duress, the brain becomes incapable of processing information as it normally does. While the brain may change its normal processing abilities to protect the person during a stressful situation, there are often negative side effects and we just talked about those. Information that is not processed in a normal matter due to a stressful or traumatic event can become ‘locked’ within the brain and as the brain attempts to process that event, an individual may experience a repetition of the very stress, pain, thoughts, and other bodily sensations that they experienced during the original events. So EMDR therapy works in and on multiple levels of the brain, both incorporating talk therapy elements that people are used to in regular counseling with elements of the rational thought and thinking along with deeper memory systems and even physical memories to help unlock these stressful events and reprocess them in a way that’s adaptive. This allows for somebody to have what we call resolution. A lot of times in our life, bad things happen and the other person involved or the experience  cannot offer resolution to us. So EMDR therapy is a way to get internal resolution that’s not just repeating a mantra or a saying into yourself everyday. Often times a bad relationship break up, a death, difficult things in your life, huge changes, sometimes people move across the country and that can be a lot of different feelings about that and unresolved things from wherever they were in the past: you can seek resolution through EMDR when the other person or event is not able to help you. Let’s talk about – can you read this part as the brain processes the event individuals.”

Joshua: “Sure. As the brain processes the event, individuals become able to embody with healthy and adaptive beliefs about themselves both from the past and during the current time which can build long-term resiliency in an individual. In addition, EMDR therapy works to clear the body of disturbing physical sensations associated with the event or what is sometimes called the ‘felt sense.’”

Paul: “So, in a way, what we’re talking about here is that EMDR not only addresses negative things, but there are parts of EMDR that help you learn coping skills, safety, relaxation. Also, there are parts of EMDR therapy that helps you install beliefs that you already knew but don’t believe yourself such as ‘I am good enough the way I am, I am doing my best, I did my best, I am safe now in 2019 in this year’ but hard to live out. So EMDR is trying to help what you believe about yourself to be true when you’re feeling good and helps you embody that so that you can actually live that way without hours and hours of telling yourself repetition and affirmations. Thoughts?”

Joshua: “Yeah, so, that’s actually speaking about the adaptive information processing that we believe occurs when we’re doing EMDR. Effectively, again, let’s say we’re stuck in a traumatic memory or stuck in a stressful event. There’s generally a negative cognition, a negative thought, that becomes locked in my head. If this moment was true about me, if this bad thing happened to me in my life, this is this negative belief or thought coming with me through the rest of my life about who I am, what kind of person I am, what I deserve.”

Paul: “And what the world is like.”

Joshua: “Exactly. And so by going through and processing, you’ll actually find that your brain, as that event becomes less and less stressful and go and reprocess that event, our brain starts to grab pieces from other memories to stick into that memory basically proving that ‘No, I was good in this memory. I didn’t deserve what happened to me. I’m still strong, I’m still worthwhile.’”

Paul: “So your brain sees a larger picture when it goes through EMDR therapy and it starts to integrate the negative experience into the rest of your life. This allows you to move on because a big criticism of counseling and therapy is that people say ‘well why do I just want to keep talking about something bad that happened in the past’ or ‘why do I want to keep talking about problems I can’t solve.’ EMDR takes this to a new level and that’s why it’s effective. Our whole goal is to get you out of the door and living your life once again – to have you not talk over and over. I know, especially being a male, a lot of males resist therapy: ‘why do I want to talk about it; I can’t do anything about it.’ Well, right now that is weighing you down, this negative thing is weighing you down, this negative belief. With EMDR therapy, in a short amount of sessions, depending on the person, we can get you to a point where you aren’t feeling that way and you aren’t saying these negative things anymore and you feel better and more like yourself. Everybody’s different, so I can’t say that everybody gets that result, but a lot of people get results in 6-10 sessions easily, and that’s what the research says. There’s lots of research on this where people who have had post-traumatic stress disorder, even after 5 or 6 sessions, didn’t even meet the symptom criteria anymore for it. So if you’re open to it and you’re ready, then EMDR therapy can be for you. It often beats other forms of therapy and talk therapy; we do talk therapy in it [EMDR].

So I wanted to talk a little bit about the origins. It does, in some forms, use eye movement and in addition to bilateral stimulation. We can talk more about that with your counselor about what they use, but it’s using a little bit of physiological components with the talk therapy and the targeted therapy. Dr. Francine Shapiro originally found this in 1987 during some theories, and eventually she studied EMDR because she studied the eye movement to help resolve stress, right? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Joshua: “So, this is actually a little bit of an interesting story told by my trainer when I received my training. But, apparently, Francine Shapiro, she was stressed over some kind of event back in the days of education and went outside to take a walk. At the end of the walk she found, ‘I’m not stressed about this anymore.’ She continued to find, even days later, she still wasn’t stressed about it. She went back and retraced her steps trying to figure out what was it about that walk that made this stressful event no longer bothering to me. What she noticed as she was walking, she was taking step-by-step and watching her feet as she moved back-and-forth. So, effectively, she was doing bilateral stimulation; she was accessing both sides of the body, getting the eye movement in, accessing both parts of the hemispheres of the brain, making that connection between the difference processing spheres effectively.”

Paul: “So then she started isolating the eye movement and other forms of bilateral stimulation while bringing up difficult experiences, different difficult thoughts, negative things. I feel like it helps the person get out of just thinking about it and into the body and the whole human experience instead of just theorizing which helps eventually integrate these memories or these negative experiences into an experience that can then lead you into feeling stronger as a person. This therapy has also been reported to be effective with anxiety, depression, panic disorders, addictions, body dysmorphic conditions, phobias, pain disorders, and more. A lot of people have chosen to use EMDR instead of just medications first. Now, were not saying medications are not helpful. For people who are really acutely in a bad situation and suicidal, you know, being in a hospital and getting medications can be a good way to keep you safe. But if you’re in a position where you are just depressed or anxious and you haven’t tried EMDR therapy to get to the roots, because EMDR therapy is concerned with why are you anxious and depressed, why do you have phobias, why do you act like this, why do you think like this, and why are you having post-traumatic stress? If we can address those issues, we believe symptomology clears up. Medications address symptomology: you’re anxious? Here’s this group of medications. You’re depressed? Here’s this group of medications. You have post-traumatic stress? Here are three or four medications that may or may not have been studied while taking together. Hospitals keep you safe; it’s not a place to live. So is EMDR therapy right for you? Well, Josh, do you want to maybe bring up some of the things that could be helpful if you suffer from what.”

Joshua: “So, let’s talk from some personal experience. A lot of my clients right nowadays really prefer when, this is a client I know, this is a client I have seen. I’ve seen EMDR therapy be effective and helping manage obsessive-compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, trauma and self, I’ve had clients with addictions come in. For instance one of my clients came in for smoking and just wanted to stop smoking. So we go back through discovering where did your smoking start, when did you first learn about that, what need wasn’t being met in your life. Through processing, my client doesn’t smoke anymore. So, is EMDR therapy right for you? Maybe; I say maybe. Again, every therapy needs to be developed and tailored uniquely to the individual and that’s why you want to find a professional licenced counselor who knows what they’re doing, who knows EMDR so they can help you figure out if it is right for you.”

Paul: “Yes, and we want to make sure that you feel safe with the counselor and that they’re not re-traumatizing you in any way. You want to make sure that you feel that this person is honoring you. So it always comes down to the practitioner; so we’re saying EMDR trained by the institute and is continuing to keep up on continued education. Those are questions you’re allowed to ask any counselor and therapist and they should tell you: how many hours they did, when they were trained. There are different levels of EMDR. All of the therapists here at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids in the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center have been through institute approved level two and have done the 10 hours of consultation after two weekends of training and are practicing it. There are further levels you can go up the scale and a lot of them are starting to work towards that such as ________ (at 21:13) certification. So as long as your therapist has been through level two and the consultation, they are definitely qualified to work with you immediately on this as long as they also know their stuff. It’s important to make sure you feel aligned with them, you feel like they have the knowledge and experience to help you. I have lots of stories of people who have improved dramatically after EMDR. In fact, it was funny, I worked with some people and they were like, ‘honestly, I like seeing you, but after these six sessions, I’m ready to just move on with my life.’ And I was like, ‘oh, okay, alright. Well let me know how it goes’ and they email me a week, year, months later and said ‘I’m still doing great.’ So I’ve had lots of people also make life changes after getting the EMDR therapy. Some people take a little bit longer, it just depends on the person and depends where you’re at. If you’re seeking something and you try with your whole heart, you’re eventually going to find the resources. But, a lot of times the resources are outside what our normal understanding is and that requires reading books, that requires talking to experienced people. So I find EMDR therapy great; I have definitely used it myself. When I first heard about it, I didn’t know what it was so I went to the training and tried it out and I was amazed at how I felt. I think that’s more important than what symptom relief happened. I think I felt different and I had been to therapy before. As a therapist, we’re always encouraging therapists to go to therapy. If your therapist hasn’t been to therapy, then I don’t know if I’d ever go to them. What I would say is, I just remember feeling different. I felt different after regular therapy, but this was like a whole other level. It was almost as if a seismic shift had occurred. So, anything else you want to comment about on EMDR therapy?”

Joshua: “I still remember my, because again, if you’re going through someone who has actually been trained properly, we’re practicing this on ourselves during the training here. I still remember my memory: it used to be really disturbing for me to bring up something from my childhood that would make me feel tight in the chest, maybe anxious a little bit, maybe a little sweaty, has really negative thoughts about myself, kind of like ‘man, he’s not good enough, I’m not good enough; I never have been.’ But even to this day when I pull that memory, it’s just like this hazy thing in my brain like ‘oh yeah, that’s in the past. I don’t know why that ever bothered me’ and that was just two weekends. Oh man, I don’t really know why that was a big deal. The last thing I want to touch on too is kind of age groups: what age groups are good for EMDR? We’ve got studies to suggest that it could be used as young as two or three years of age. My youngest client that I’ve used EMDR with was two years of age who suffered from some birth trauma, right. So even just going through that with young children, EMDR can be effective to all age ranges and especially with kids; kids heal so much faster than adults.”

Paul: “Right, and there are some special training involved in how to work with kids and the methods involved are way different than adults. But, it definitely is the same system, it’s the same phases, it’s the same training. But there is advanced stuff to work with kids and I think it’s great. One of my mentors Ana Gomez is famous for working with children. She has all sorts of cool ways and was getting amazing results with behavioral issues and mood issues with children that other therapists were clueless as to how to help or the parents were throwing their arms up, and Ana helped them with EMDR. So, it’s a very effective treatment. If you want to know more about it, you can check out our website: Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids which is www.healthforlifegr.com. Also, there is the Trauma-Informed Center of Grand Rapids, you can also Google that; that’s also on our website www.healthforlifegr.com, there’s a link there. So, if you’re not into the internet, you can always use the old phone: (616) 200-4433, that’s (616) 200-4433; give us a call and set up a complimentary 15 minute consultation. There are multiple therapists, male and female, here that are all trained in EMDR and other advanced techniques as well. EMDR is not all we do here, but it is one of the things Josh and I wanted to talk to you about today and we’re really glad that you listened! If you have more questions, feel free to give us a call, email, all of that. So, thank you Joshua for talking to me about EMDR therapy and sharing those personal stories.”

Joshua: “Yeah, thanks for having me on. I hope to be back another time.”

Paul: “Alright, sounds good. This has been Paul Krauss at the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids and Health for Life.”


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