EMDR Heals the Wounded Soul

What Is It and How Can It Help You?

EMDR Heals the Wounded Soul
Credit: Margherita Maniscalco/EyeEm/Getty Images

You may have heard about a type of therapy called EMDR that's being used to help patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and phobias.  This simple but effective therapy is used to quickly uncover and heal deep traumas from the past.  Unfortunately many of the information sites on the Web seem to be directed towards practitioners, not the patient.  There are few places you can go to get a clear, simple explanation of what this therapy entails.

  To fill this need, I have answered in layman's terms some of your most frequently asked questions about EMDR.  I have also included two stories submitted by our members about their personal experiences with this therapy to give you an added perspective on what you can expect.  If you have deep-seated fears or emotional scars this may be just what you need to achieve healing.

What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.  It is used to treat PTSD and other similar disorders such as phobias on a short-term basis.

How does it work?

No one is completely sure how or why it works.  One theory is that our subconscious minds try to help us work out difficult issues during our dreams.  EMDR seeks to replicate the rapid eye movement of dreaming and thus allow one to work on issues in a similar way.

What is the actual procedure like?

An example of how a session might go is this:

The patient makes himself comfortable.  The patient and therapist discuss what issues they will work on in this particular session.  The therapist sits to the patient's side and holds her three middle fingers together similar to a Boy Scout's salute, but about six inches in front of the patient's eyes.

  The patient is instructed to follow the fingers as the therapist moves them rhythmically back and forth in front of his eyes.  The patient then attempts to remember the particular event as the therapist continues the movement.  The whole procedure lasts for perhaps five minutes at which time the therapist withdraws her fingers.  Patient and therapist then further discuss what has been remembered.

Does it feel like dreaming?

No, it is not surreal like dreaming.  Patient's report being able to remember details that they could not before, including the physical and emotional sensations that they originally experienced.

How long does it take for it to work?

It is generally a short-term therapy.  Patients may begin to experience some breakthrough in just one session.

Who is a good candidate for EMDR?

EMDR is used for people who have experienced some sort of trauma or have strong phobias.  Examples of those who might benefit are those who have been abused, have undergone natural disasters or who have been in a combat situation.

Good candidates are also those who are willing to bring their inner demons out into the daylight and deal with them.  It is also for those who have a strong desire to be liberated from the traumas of the past.

How can I find a therapist who practices EMDR?

EMDR International Association provides a searchable database of therapists who are certified to practice EMDR. 

Where can I learn more about EMDR?

The links provided in the box on the right side of this page provide a good jumping off point to learn more about EMDR, both from a layperson's and professional's point of view.

When I first met Leeny, I immediately liked her.  She had a sharp sense of humor, a fierce love for her kids and an inner warmth that always made me feel better for my time with her.  She also had a quiet pain within her that was evidenced by the way she shied away from hugs, even the cyber kind so popular in our chat room.  I wondered what could have happened to make someone so afraid of showing affection.

Leeny later revealed to us that she had been molested by her brothers as a child.  Her older sisters were also abused and related to her that their mother told them "they can't help themselves," and to "stay out of their way."  She admitted that she had very little real memory of her childhood, having blocked it out to a large extent.  Much of what she knew she had learned from her sisters.

One of Leeny's more poignant memories is of the first time she wanted to die at the age of perhaps 8 or 9.  She places it in this timeframe because she was "chest high to the kitchen sink."   She recalls, "I took a butcher knife and placed it under my sternum. I knew that my heart was under that bone and if I fell it would kill me. I didn't do it because I knew that my mother would be mad at me because of the blood on the kitchen floor."

When she became an adult she was still not free of the abuse, however.

  Although the physical abuse had stopped long ago, she was left lonely and confused.   She began drinking and using drugs to quiet the pain inside her.  She says,  "It was the 60's and anything was fair game. There were binges that lasted for days at a time."  She began to manifest her uncertainties about love and affection through promiscuity.

  Says Leeny, "It was the 'sexual revolution.' One night I couldn't sleep. I started counting my various sex partners. I quit counting after 30. I was lucky. None of them killed me."

Eventually she became involved with the man who would give her the two children who are still the light of her life.  Unfortunately he also gave her numerous bruises and emotional abuse.  When the time came that his abuse was also affecting her children, she made the courageous decision to leave.

Today Leeny is married to a man whom she describes as deserving "a Nobel prize at the very least."  He has stayed by her side through four hospitalizations and has patiently allowed her the space she needs as she comes to term with the fact that physical displays of affection do not have to equal pain and humilation.

As I got to know Leeny, I saw that she was slowly beginning to accept the cyber equivalent of a pat on the shoulder and soon was giving and receiving hugs freely. I asked one of our hosts what had happened to effect such a change in her. The answer was that Leeny had been going to therapy. I was soon to learn it wasn't just any therapy, however. Leeny had been receiving a new type of therapy called EMDR.

Although Leeny says EMDR wasn't the original catalyst for this change, it has helped to crystallize the discoveries she has made in her therapy, such as the fact that to be touched is not equivalent to pain.

She also learned more details about her childhood. One of her fears, she says, was that she had been duped by previous therapists, that she had never been abused at all. During EMDR session, however, she was able to remember many details about her abuse right down the physical sensations. She also remembered something that to her was more painful than the abuse itself. After her mother discovered it was happening, she began to protect Leeny. Her abusive brother became violent towards her. Her older sisters who had also been abused, but had not received this protection became jealous and distanced themselves from her. She says at this time in her life, "I became that island in a sea of people who I wanted so desperately to love me".

She adds, "I wanted that love and camaraderie of siblings so much that I would have gladly given into rape for as long as my body was needed. The molestation stopped, but something worse took it's place. Loneliness and despair became my life."

Although Leeny made some painful discoveries, she also has begun to heal and has no regrets.

She describes EMDR as "the most liberating therapy that I have experienced in the almost 8 years since I began this journey of returning to the world of the 'As close to normal as possible.'" Perhaps the most encouraging sign of her newfound healing is the fact that she has volunteered to be a tutor for the Adult Literacy program in her hometown. She tells me, "My greatest wish is that because in some small way I will have given someone the power and joy of reading. Not too bad for someone who hasn't left the house willingly for years unless it was for a doctor's appointment or to go grocery shopping with my husband." Leeny, I'm very proud of you. (((((((((((Leeny)))))))))))

You may know Eponine as a host in our chat room. Her story is a bit different from Leeny's. She has PTSD as a result of two major events in her adult life: the murder of a very close friend followed closely by the suicide of another dear friend. Her extreme grief over these two violent, traumatic losses left her with symptoms of nightmares, panic attacks, nausea and severe depression that she was unable to shake despite years of talk therapy, support groups and medication.

She finally got up the courage to begin EMDR.

Eponine describes EMDR as "a total phenomenon."  She says, "It took about four to six sessions to desensitize me to all of the nightmares, panic attacks, vomiting, etc. that would come with my PTSD and her death. I cannot explain in words how this worked, but I tell you from my heart that today I have been able to start my life over, thanks to EMDR." She further adds, "I have been able to go to the place of her death, lay a dozen yellow roses down, bid my farewell, and put closure on this death that was not only hers, but that part of me that died too."

Although EMDR has worked wonders in her healing, Eponine admits that it was not easy in the beginning. She says, "I was really scared the first time I walked into the office to do the session. I was panicky, frightened, nauseated, frustrated, and near nervous breakdown."

The first session went very well, however, and she began to work with her therapist to plan what other areas of her life she could work on.

Eponine says she believes that if you feel "stuck" in an area it is because you have been traumatized somehow. One of EMDR's strengths is that it helps you to the remember forgotten traumas and to discover the basis for your fears.

One of her first sessions was set up to find out why she afraid of sex.

This issue had long her puzzled because she had never been sexually abused.

When she went through the session she learned some surprising things. As a child she had been subjected to a series of minor vaginal surgeries without anesthesia. This was the source of her fears. This single session was such a breakthrough for her that she says, "I was able to go home to my fiance and share the most beautiful moment of my life." She adds, "I couldn't believe how that one EMDR session changed my life. I was not scared, I was not terrified, I was not nauseated. I was in a beautiful place, finally. I was at peace with my womanhood...for the first time."

Eponine concludes by saying that, "EMDR is an exhausting and very intense form of therapy, but it works. Wonderful peace has come from EMDR for me, and I hope that you may find that peace as well."

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