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How and Why EMDR Works for Trauma Treatment

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by Clear Behavioral Health Therapist, Teresa Bertoncin, LMFT

When entering treatment whether, for mental health and/or addiction, it is predominately because of what is not working.  Thoughts, emotions and behaviors are out of control—often times in an attempt to avoid vulnerable or negative feelings.  Self-doubt becomes pervasive, as we struggle to deal with life’s painful challenges. We feel alone in our anxious and/or intrusive thoughts, and increasing physical isolation. We feel stuck, hopeless and helpless.

It does not help that our brain has been evolved to routinely scan for what’s wrong, what is not working, and when we find the bad news or the negative thing, we tend to double down our focus on it. It becomes our proof, and because it is familiar, it morphs into a kind of distorted comfort. Sometimes things that seem familiar or “normal” to us, actually aren’t so comfortable at all. Yet, we cling to these familiarities because at least it is better than uncertainty or the scary unknown. It offers us the illusion of control. This, in effect keeps up from having to risk stepping out of the sidelines of our own life.

Unfortunately, this ‘proof’ or negative stimuli imprint more quickly. They have a greater and longer-lasting impact on our brains than positive stimuli. Mental health issues, loneliness, trauma, and/or substance abuse exacerbate these cognitive distortions. This causes us to plummet, and eventually become stuck in the feedback loop of unhealthy and self-destructive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

At Clear Behavioral Health, we focus on what works. We utilize a full continuum of care and approach that is individualized and evidence-based. This is in order to promote inner strengths and resilience with a positive lasting effect on thinking, actions, and beliefs.  The goal of treatment is not just to think more positively, but also to cultivate an internal and external awareness of the obstacles that have kept us grounded in negative thinking. Thus, opening heart and mind to gaining alternate perspectives, finding meaningfulness, and building effective and sustainable coping strategies.

Clear Behavioral Health curriculum, evidence-based therapeutic modalities, and whole person compassionate approach to addiction and mental health recovery promotes simultaneous healing from the top down and bottom-up. Top-down interventions are focused on changing your thoughts and begin with looking at how the mind is interpreting information. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-based Cognitive therapy (MBCT), and psycho-education and skill-building are examples of Clear’s top-down approaches.

Bottom-up processing accesses information from the body sensations and emotions. To promote healing, the most effective modalities for bottom-up therapy incorporates dual awareness—thinking and feeling. Bottom-up therapy integrates the whole brain: left, right, top and bottom.

EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems, Emotionally Focused Therapy are extremely effective trauma-informed “bottom-up” approaches used at Clear Behavioral Health.

In this treatment information series, we will zoom in on what works at Clear Behavioral Health, beginning with how EMDR can support treatment and recovery. In our next post, we will address how Somatic Experiencing works. Subsequent posts will explore some of the top-down methods used at Clear, as well as Clear’s mind-body integrative practices including meditation, yoga, breathworks and Soundbath.

EMDR Therapy

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is an integrative psychotherapy that has been extensively researched and proven effective for the rapid treatment of trauma. EMDR therapy aims to reduce subjective distress and strengthen adaptive cognitions related to the traumatic event.  EMDR is recommended by the World Health Organization, The American Psychiatric Association, and the Department of Defense for the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Additionally, EMDR has also been proven effective in the treatment of:

  • Addictions
  • Abuse (physical, mental and emotional)
  • Anxiety, panic attacks, phobias
  • Body dysmorphic disorders
  • Complicated grief
  • Self-esteem issues
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Disturbing memories
  • Pain disorders
  • Performance anxiety
  • Stress reduction

EMDR therapy views problems as the result of memories that are maladaptively stored in the brain, and is very effective at calming and healing in a short span of time. By focusing on a thought associated with traumatic memories it is very specific and direct. It evokes and integrates information on three levels—cognitive, emotional, and somatic—very often targeting a negative cognition or a negative self-belief; I’m unworthy, I’m ugly, I’m incompetent, I’m unsafe, etc.

Maladaptive “undigested” memories and the negative beliefs we maintain about ourselves as a result of those incidents, keep us stuck. EMDR can help us go back to when a root was laid down for a negative belief system. Its purpose is to replace that negative belief system with a positive one. EMDR allows a person to explore and resolve the dysregulated feelings safely withone foot in past and one foot in the present. By tracking physical sensations and feelings in the body, and using eye movements and bilateral stimulations, the memory is desensitized from distressing emotion, the negative beliefs become dislodged, replaced with positive beliefs about oneself, while using this positive experience to support a future template of adaptive wholeness.  

Our brain is a natural healing mechanism, just like the rest of our body it wants to heal.

If we fall and cut our knee, it might be immediately painful, but the body works naturally to close the wound. If, however, there are some pebble fragments that had not been cleaned out properly, or we keep bonking our knee up against something, the wound will fester and cause ongoing pain. Once the pebble (blockage) is eliminated once and for all, healing resumes. In this same way, we get stuck in trauma when the brain’s information processing system is blocked by the impact of a distressing event, intense suffering ensues, but once the block is removed the brain, like the body, moves naturally towards mental health. The brain is equipped to manage and handle adversity, and EMDR therapy helps the psyche activate its natural healing process.

In our next installment of our treatment information series, we will explore somatic experiencing, another bottom-up, what works approach at Clear Behavioral Health.

Clear Behavioral Health therapist Teresa Bertoncin, LMFT is a certified EMDR therapist and an EMDR International Association approved consultant. She is recognized as an expert in the field of EMDR. To learn more about Clear Behavioral Health’s inpatient or outpatient treatment programs, contact our expert clinical team today!

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