Andie Bernard, a licensed professional clinical counselor at Rootworks Wellness in Cincinnati, was working with children and families in marginalized communities who had experienced complex trauma, but she didn’t get the sense she was truly helping them get better through the use of play and talk therapies.
“As I was treating these children and their families, I just couldn’t get to the root of what was really needed to make lasting gains. Their bodies were calm with me in session when they could be, but they were activated everywhere else,” she recalls. “I needed something more powerful beyond talk and play. I needed something that could help to reshape their worldview [and] their belief about themselves.”
This led Bernard to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. After using the therapy, she finally started seeing improvements with these clients.
EMDR was developed in the late 1980s when Francine Shapiro discovered a connection between eye movement and a decrease in the negative emotions associated with her own upsetting memories. More than 30 years after EMDR was first introduced, it has not only proved to be effective but has also been recognized by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the U.S. Department of Defense as a primary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
EMDR pulls directly from many evidence-based therapeutic approaches such as psychoanalysis, cognitive behavior therapy and somatic therapy, notes Bernard, a member of the American Counseling Association. Like psychoanalysis, EMDR therapy explores clients’ past, present and future, but its aim is to help clients realize that what happened to them in the past is not happening now. The cornerstone of EMDR, Bernard explains, is the adaptive information processing model, which asserts that humans will move themselves toward healing once they have all necessary information and can see it adaptively.
Our body’s ability to naturally heal itself from a cut is similar to how we heal emotionally, Bernard points out. “But if we are unconsciously locked in unsafe experiences that still feel true, the body cannot get to that natural healing,” she says. “EMDR moves the past into the now in partnership with the therapist so the client can see what’s in front of them and assess threat from today.”
Bernard, an EMDR-certified therapist and a consultant-in-training with the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA), finds that clients often come to counseling with a myopic view of their problems. EMDR therapy helps them widen that lens and move toward healing.
How EMDR differs from other approaches
The first three phases of EMDR (history and treatment planning, preparation and assessment) are similar to other counseling approaches because they focus on understanding the client’s full history, building a strong therapeutic relationship, creating safety, and cultivating coping skills that are centered on the mind and body. Phase 4, desensitization, is where EMDR shifts toward a neurobiological approach by helping the client change the way the brain and body associate the trauma with its trigger, Bernard explains. Rather than directing the client to simply share their narrative verbally (as might be done with trauma-focused cognitive behavior therapy), an EMDR therapist will have the client focus on a targeted traumatic memory while they undergo bilateral stimulation such as eye movements. This process speeds up the client’s ability to integrate the material into an adaptive neural pathway, she says, and removes the emotional charge and associated behaviors in everyday life.
This hints at one major way that EMDR differs from many traditional counseling approaches: It doesn’t require much talking, at least during the desensitization phase. (See sidebar below for an overview of the eight phases of EMDR therapy.) Addie Brown, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Virginia and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California, acknowledges that at first it was challenging for her to resist the urge to reflect and validate her clients’ thoughts and feelings. She had to retrain herself to follow the EMDR protocol and respond only with simple phrases such as “go with that” when a client mentioned a new feeling or memory.
Brown says this aspect of EMDR can be freeing for clients who prefer not to share details about their traumatic experience. “Some clients like the fact that they don’t have to talk a lot, they don’t have to give a lot of details, because there are things that are so shameful for them that they don’t want to talk about. [Talking about those things] can be more traumatizing. They’re still doing the work [with EMDR] … but they’re not having to tell that story over and over again,” notes Brown, an EMDR-certified therapist with a private practice, Harbor Site Counseling, in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Carla Parola, an LPC in private practice at Seven Centers Counseling in Phoenix, once worked with a client who was hesitant to share his history of being sexually abused as a child. She explained to the client that he didn’t need to disclose many details of his abuse while doing EMDR therapy and that he didn’t have to talk about the abuse until he was ready. If he decided to work on a trauma memory, he had to share only the image that represented the worst part of the traumatic experience as well as the emotions, negative cognition and body sensation associated with the image. For example, the client could select the image of “being alone in the closet,” without having to disclose what happened in the closet or the events leading up to it, says Parola, an EMDRIA-approved consultant and humanitarian assistance program facilitator. This explanation eased the client’s concerns, and he agreed to continue with treatment.
EMDR’s use of bilateral stimulation can be powerful, but some clients are naturally verbal and are accustomed to sharing more details than are required when using EMDR therapy. Clinicians in EMDR training often tell Bernard that they struggle to help some clients effectively target and reprocess certain traumatic memories because these clients seem to want only to talk about their feelings and feel supported by the clinician.
But there is room for clients to talk and process when doing EMDR therapy, Bernard says. In her sessions, she stays relationally attuned and listens to the client for the first 10-15 minutes. While connecting with her clients, she looks for themes that relate to their already-targeted negative memories and associated self-beliefs. For example, if a client comes in talking about how she was arguing with her husband because he was busy with work and was distant at home, Bernard may say, “I’m wondering if your feelings with your husband this week relate to not feeling important to your mom when you were growing up. Does that feel like it fits?” If the client agrees, Bernard steers the content back to reprocessing the client’s past targeted memories and belief that she is not important. This allows the client to begin seeing how the self-belief she developed in childhood is shaping her thoughts, feelings and reactions in her current relationships. “This is the power of EMDR. We are not asking clients to cope with their symptoms; we are helping them know how they developed them,” Bernard says.
Unlike other counseling approaches that help clients make a state change (moving from an anxious state to a calm state, for example), EMDR therapy helps clients make trait changes, Bernard says. As she explains, a state change approaches the problem through the brain’s frontal cortex and helps clients learn coping strategies to deal with their symptoms, whereas a trait change involves looking at what is underneath the state by using historical memories, the nervous system and the limbic part of the brain. Integrating new insights and beliefs through bilateral stimulation creates a trait change that helps clients form more adaptive viewpoints and appropriate responses to difficult triggers.
Bernard uses an analogy to highlight the difference between state changes and trait changes. Whereas a state change requires clients to change lanes (moving from an anxious road to a calm road), a trait change requires building a new highway in the brain that reshapes how clients view their world and themselves in it.
“If [clients are] interested only in state change and just want to talk through their symptoms to learn ways to cope … that can be accomplished with phase 2 of EMDR. But if [they] want to clearly believe, see and know that the threat has changed regarding that trigger and make a true trait change,” then that involves the latter phases of the EMDR protocol, she says.
When to use (and not use) EMDR
G. Michael Russo, a visiting assistant professor of counselor education and addiction program coordinator at Boise State University, specializes in integrating neuroscience into counseling practice. He took part in a meta-analysis led by Richard Balkin and A. Stephen Lenz, consisting of research studies from 1987 to 2018, to determine the overall efficacy of EMDR for reducing symptoms of overarousal. They found that EMDR can be an effective treatment for anxiety and trauma, but the results showed varying levels of efficacy — with some reporting high levels of efficacy and others indicating that it may be better to go with a different intervention.
“None of the articles that were included in the study utilized neuroscience measures. So … we are unable to explore claims regarding neurological changes resulting from EMDR,” says Russo, an LPC in Idaho. “Some might even say that neurological changes resulting from the EMDR processes are unfounded. However, what we can say is that there very well could be an alternative explanation for client growth in EMDR sessions that does not relate to the eye movement, tactile or auditory stimulation. It is possible that the relationship itself is the agent of change.” Russo presented the findings from the meta-analysis, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Counseling & Development, during ACA’s Virtual Conference Experience this past spring.
The bottom line, Russo says, is that despite the potential effectiveness of EMDR, counselors should remain critical consumers when using it with clients. They should ask themselves: When does EMDR work? When doesn’t it work? Who is represented in the research? Is this the best approach for this client?
According to the VA, other recent meta-analyses suggest that EMDR produces moderate to strong treatment effects for PTSD symptom reduction, depression symptom reduction and loss of PTSD diagnosis.
“EMDR is not exclusive to trauma or PTSD. It can be applied across the board,” Brown asserts. “There’s so many experiences we have that leave an emotional impact on us, and that really is why EMDR can be helpful, because it’s addressing the emotional impacts we’ve experienced.” Those impacts might include trauma as well as grief, job loss, eating disorders or relationship issues. If a client is having a strong emotional response to an event, or if a negative feeling or memory lingers and the clients wonders why they still feel this way, then EMDR can be a good approach to use, she says.
Still, Brown acknowledges that EMDR may not be for everyone, so she assesses when and if she wants to use the therapy with her clients. She also explains the process to clients to determine if they are ready to begin the treatment.
Brown finds three main barriers that might prevent EMDR therapy from working with some clients. First, a client may be too emotionally detached. This often happens when family members or friends encourage a person to seek counseling, but the person doesn’t really believe that they need to be there, she says.
Second, clients may not be ready to completely release their emotions related to an event. Brown advises counselors to use phase 2 of EMDR therapy to explore any potential barriers that would prevent the client from fully processing their feelings.
Third, an internal conflict could hinder the client’s progress. If a client is working on an issue that conflicts with their value system, they may have to work on that conflict in a different way before attempting to use EMDR, Brown says. For example, a client may not want to completely reprocess and heal from their grief because they would feel guilty about “letting go” of their pain.
Brown once worked with a client who sought counseling because she was struggling after the death of her son. When Brown asked about her son, the client started sobbing as if he had died the day before and the loss was still very raw; in fact, it had been 10 years since her son had passed away. After a few sessions of EMDR with Brown, the client had lowered her distress level only modestly, from a 10 (high level of distress) to a 6 (moderate level of distress). Despite still being in a great deal of pain, the client was satisfied with that progress, Brown recalls, because she didn’t want to feel better than that.
Because EMDR therapists are excited about the potential impact this therapy can have, they may be tempted to use it with every client they encounter, Brown says, but that isn’t an ethical practice. She reminds counselors to stay within their scope of competency. Someone recently came to see Brown because they wanted to use EMDR therapy to help them with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Even though Brown is trained in EMDR and EMDR is a good intervention for treating OCD, she referred the person to another clinician because Brown did not feel competent working with that particular disorder.
“Just because you’re trained in a really great intervention that can be used for so many different issues doesn’t mean that you, as a clinician, have to use it for all of those issues if you don’t have the clinical competency to address those issues,” she says.
Case example with complex trauma
Bernard offered to provide a case example (based on a composite of her clients) to illustrate how to apply the EMDR protocol with a client experiencing complex trauma. The client is a woman in her 30s who experienced significant abuse and relational neglect in her family beginning at birth. The client is functional in her everyday life, but she struggles to let go of the shame and feelings of responsibility for what happened to her. “Kids are hardwired to believe that traumatic things that happen to them are their fault, and she was no exception,” Bernard notes. For many years, the client coped with the trauma by dissociating her mind and body from her past experiences. She had gone to counseling on and off throughout her life, but this was largely unsuccessful because she was stuck in the childhood belief loop that her past traumas were her fault.
During phase 1 of EMDR, Bernard gets to know the client and her history. EMDR allows counselors to be creative when taking a full history, she notes. Bernard asks the client to mark on a chronological timeline (from ages 1 to 38) any significant events that have affected her or contributed to her symptoms and how she sees herself today. This includes both positive and negative experiences. Bernard sets a three-minute timer, and the client marks these events in grounded silence.
When the client finishes, Bernard looks for any marks that are more pronounced than the rest — those with a thicker line or a circle around them, for example. She notices one mark is larger, and she asks the client to tell her about that event. The client says, “This is when I met my one and only true friend.” Bernard writes this down at the top of the timeline.
Bernard continues to discuss these experiences with the client, marking positive events on the top and negative events on the bottom of the timeline. Clients are often stuck in seeing only the negative, Bernard explains, so marking the timeline in this way helps show clients the duality of their experiences (i.e., some are hard, while others are good or OK).
Highlighting these positive experiences is also the first step toward building the client’s resources, which occurs during phase 2 of EMDR. This phase is crucial for this client because initial sessions reveal that she has limited resources for assessing her own relational and physical safety, which often leaves her hypervigilant, anxious and overwhelmed in everyday life.
Bernard asks the client how she feels about the memory of making that one true friend. The client replies that she doesn’t have any feelings about it, which becomes a theme indicating to Bernard that the client is experiencing some levels of disassociation.
After three months of working on creating a sense of safety, developing a strong therapeutic alliance and cultivating coping skills, Bernard determines that the client still does not have sufficient resources to target distressing memories in the latter phases of EMDR, so she decides to use EMDR to increase access to stabilizing resources with the client. This allows them to tackle the issue through a strengths-based approach by targeting positive (rather than negative) memories and beliefs.
“EMDR is an artful, flexible and powerful approach to meet any client where they are in their healing journey,” Bernard says. “We can use the bilateral stimulation to reprocess past traumas or to help them see their strengths and resilience in the present, in spite of the trauma. So many clinical choices are possible for EMDR clinicians who understand the robustness of the protocol and can apply it creatively to the therapy.”
Next, Bernard writes down a list of positive things the client is responsible for, such as surviving her past abuse, graduating from college, and being a good teacher and parent. She asks the client, “Are you responsible for all this?” Then she uses bilateral stimulation to grow these positive neural pathways in the client’s brain. This allows the client to focus on the present positive experiences instead of the negative feedback loop that stems from her past abuse.
“While I’m building resources, I’m also teaching past versus present orientation to this client,” Bernard explains, “so, later, when we’re doing the hard traumatic reprocessing, I can say, ‘See those experiences back there? That is over; you made it through.’” This is a powerful aspect of EMDR therapy, she asserts, because it allows the client’s mind and body to begin to know that the past traumas are over and they are safe.
A few months later, the client is ready to target the traumatic memories, including the thoughts, sensations and self-beliefs developed from those experiences. The self-beliefs formed by her early trauma are such foundational elements of her present self-concept that she and Bernard must target them one at a time. After working on reprocessing the memory to understand it (using bilateral stimulation), they integrate the new insight into the body to create new meaning. This process is repeated for every traumatic memory target, which ultimately allows the client to revise the thought that she is responsible for what happened to her as a child.
After reprocessing the traumatic memories for several months, the client no longer feels responsible for the past abuse that happened to her. The client now sees her abusers as a row of dominoes and realizes that she no longer belongs in the same line with them.
“This shift could not have been achieved without the use of EMDR’s full protocol of using bilateral stimulation in conjunction with holding the traumatic memories, images and bodily sensations; processing the emotions; and redefining what the experience has come to mean to [the client] from a vantage point of safety and recognition that it is in the past,” Bernard notes.
Now, the client possesses a healthier sense of self and stronger boundaries, works in a career she loves, and feels safe in her own mind and body again.
Be fluid, not rigid
As an EMDR coach, Bernard has seen several competent therapists doubt themselves when undergoing EMDR training, which involves five intense days of learning new terms and concepts. She recently wrote a blog post, “Five things every newly trained EMDR therapist wished they knew,” to address these issues. In it, she reminds practitioners that they don’t have to be competent when starting out. Instead, she recommends that they remain curious and practice with other EMDR-trained therapists in consultation to grow their confidence.
“EMDR is a protocol and a process to learn, but it’s an art when delivered,” Bernard says. If counselors are too rigid or more cognitive-oriented, then they may struggle with EMDR, she notes, and they may not be able to create a sense of coregulation with the client.
“The protocol feels linear, but it’s not always the case,” Bernard emphasizes. Counselors should move through the EMDR phases as needed in attunement with their clients. If they try to stay too on script or are overly focused on what phase they are in, then the approach will feel rigid and affect the energy in the room, she points out. In addition, they may not be attuned to what the client just said or what the client needs.
Most counselors are well-intentioned and want to get it “right,” Bernard acknowledges, which is why having colleagues and consultants to support them while learning and remind them to trust their clinical instinct is so important. She always advises her trainees to practice EMDR with fluidity rather than rigidity.
Counselors can be faithful “and have efficacy to the treatment model while also being creative and flexible,” she says. “In the beginning as a new EMDR therapist, is it going to go slower? Yes. Is it going to be more impactful and profound and life-changing for you and the client than many other clinical approaches? Yes.”
Don’t rush the process
People often assume that phase 4 — the desensitization or bilateral stimulation component — is EMDR, but that is wrong, Bernard says. If counselors jump too quickly to desensitization, then clients can get overactivated. “When we take people to intense feeling states without paying close attention to their window of tolerance, they can’t stay present in their body, and if they can’t stay in their body, we’re not healing them. We’re retriggering them,” she explains.
She advises counselors to slow down and not to overlook or rush phase 2. This phase helps prepare clients to handle the intense emotions that may come up during latter phases of EMDR by using containment skills such as a mind-body shift, deep breathing, safety cueing, mindfulness and grounding.
“When working with clients with complex trauma or highly activated ones with anxiety, depression or dissociation, you’re going to spend important time creating safety, strengthening the therapeutic alliance and building regulation skills to use to bring them affectively down when in later reprocessing phases of EMDR,” Bernard says.
She assesses a client’s sense of safety the moment they walk into her office, asking them what makes them feel safe about the room. If a client responds by saying, “I know where the front door is,” then she knows their sense of safety is low and that she will need to strengthen it to prepare them for EMDR. If, on the other hand, the client responds, “I like the colors in your office and your plants,” then she knows the client possesses a higher degree of safety to leverage during the reprocessing phases.
Parola has found some clients are hesitant to proceed with EMDR therapy because they worry the dual-attention stimuli (or bilateral stimulation) involves hypnosis or that they will not be in control of their emotions or body. So, she introduces them to the concept of dual-attention stimuli by doing a slower and shorter version of it when they are establishing the client’s safe place in phase 2. The client picks a place that makes them feel safe. Then she tells them to think about an image that represents this place and asks, “What emotions are you feeling? What sensations are you having?” If the client is having a positive reaction, she incorporates short, slow dual-attention stimuli to reinforce this resource. This helps the client prepare to use a faster and longer version of dual-attention stimuli later when they are reprocessing memories that are more traumatic, she says.
Brown notes that some clients say they are ready to begin processing their traumatic memories but then hit an emotional wall during the latter phases. For example, someone who was constantly told by their parents as a child not to cry may protect themselves by learning how to stop themselves from crying. If they don’t address this barrier before moving to the desensitization phase, then this protective strategy may prevent them from fully feeling that emotion during treatment, Brown explains. For that reason, she started incorporating the internal family systems model (which views the mind as made up of subpersonalities or “parts,” each with its own unique viewpoint) during phase 2 of EMDR to ensure that, together, they explore all parts of the client and address any barriers that could interfere with healing.
“Phase 2 is life-changing but is often overlooked by many EMDR therapists,” Bernard stresses. “If we have limited time with a client for reasons outside of our control and are only able to help them develop accessible feelings of safety and much-needed cognitive and somatic regulation resources, we have still changed their lives in powerful ways, even without the trauma reprocessing.”
Adapting to the client’s needs
EMDR therapy continues to evolve and now has specialized approaches that address the needs of certain populations or mental health issues. For example, the desensitizing triggers and urge reprocessing (DeTUR) protocol was developed by AJ Popky to treat addiction; this approach helps clients target their desire to use drugs or alcohol while also addressing underlying traumas.
Parola, who is EMDR sand tray certified, sometimes incorporates sand tray techniques throughout the eight phases of EMDR therapy. For example, she may have a child use the figurines in the sand tray to represent a safe place while she engages the child in bilateral stimulation by slowly moving a paintbrush back and forth across the child’s hand.
Counselors can also make modifications to the eight-phase protocol. Bernard’s case example illustrates one adaption of tailoring the protocol toward installing resourcing and adaptive self-beliefs, rather than processing trauma, because the client’s internal resources were so low initially.
Bilateral stimulation is another way counselors can adjust the protocol to fit clients’ individual needs. Eye movements are the most commonly used and well-researched form of bilateral stimulation, but clinicians can also use tapping, tactile stimulation or auditory tones. Bernard finds using tappers for bilateral stimulation helpful for people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or who are highly distractable because it allows them to close their eyes and tune in to their body. For clients who dissociate or those who have difficulty managing their emotions, she often uses a light bar (a bar containing LED lights that move back and forth) or finger movements because the proximity allows her to notice changes in clients’ eyes as they track the movement.
Brown discovered that several of her clients didn’t want to use the light bar for bilateral stimulation and didn’t want her sitting in front of them during the reprocessing phases. So, she adjusted to better meet their needs. She often sits off to the side where she can still observe them from a safe distance, and she allows clients to use different types of bilateral stimulation. Most of her clients prefer holding pulsers that vibrate, but she has one client who chooses to simply tap on the side of their leg.
Research continues to shed new light on ways EMDR can be used to help clients who are struggling with trauma and other mental health issues. Two recent articles in EMDRIA’s Go With That magazine discuss how EMDR can be used to address racialized trauma and addiction.
Bernard notes there is promising research highlighting that just taxing working memory (and not necessarily with bilateral stimulation) shows signs of decreasing the emotional charge around traumatic memories.
Bernard appreciates that Shapiro’s theory has given her an eight-phase protocol that allows her to be with her clients in extraordinarily profound ways: “Any therapy that sees the person as a whole — brain, body and mind — that asserts it’s not about what’s wrong with you but what happened to you, that teaches what happened to you then is over and we’re here now, and that says the information your body is sending to you is an important part of your own healing … is a gift to the therapeutic community at large.”
1) History and treatment planning (discuss the client’s history, develop a treatment plan, assess the client’s internal and external resources)
2) Preparation (build a therapeutic alliance, explain EMDR, set expectations, build the client’s coping strategies)
3) Assessment (identify the event to reprocess, establish a baseline with the Subjective Units of Distress (SUD) and Validity of Cognition measures)
4) Desensitization (use bilateral stimulation while the client thinks about the traumatic event with the goal of reducing the client’s SUD to zero)
5) Installation (strengthen a positive belief that the client wants to associate with the target experience until it feels completely true)
6) Body scan (ask the client to think about the target event and positive belief while scanning the body from head to toe, process any lingering disturbances with bilateral stimulation)
7) Closure (help the client return to a calm state)
8) Reevaluation (discuss recently processed memories at the beginning of a new session to ensure the client’s distress is still low and positive cognition is strong, determine future targets and directions for continued treatment)
(Information adapted from EMDRIA)
Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.