How EMDR Therapy Can Help with PTSD, Trauma, Panic Attacks, and Anxiety


For many of us, asking for help is a difficult task. We don’t want to seem needy or weak. Add trauma to that “ask for help,” and the process of reaching out can almost be crippling. Why?

  1. First, it can be scary to admit you need help.
  2. Second, it puts you in a vulnerable place, and—if if you’ve experienced any form of trauma—vulnerability is not a place you would willingly choose to be in.
  3. Third, finding a mental health professional to help can feel overwhelming. Questions such as…How do I find one? How do I know if they are the right one? What should I look for? What type of therapy do they do?...swirl around in your head and can be crippling.

Today I hope to take some of the guess work out of these questions by explaining the process of an amazing trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. Before I dive into the nuances of EMDR, I want to make sure we are all on the same page with the definition of trauma.

1. What is Trauma?

Trauma is a real or perceived event whereby harm (mental, emotional, or physical) happens. This real or perceived event overwhelms the central nervous system and changes the way an individual processes and recalls memory. For those who have experienced a traumatic event, it is not a story of something that happened once in the past and is over; but a current daily reliving of the emotional, mental, and physical pain, fear, and anxiety. Trauma can be broken down into two types:

  1. Big “T” traumas are events such as a sexual assault, a major car accident, a catastrophic loss (e.g. losing a child to suicide), combat trauma, etc.
  2. Small “t” traumas are events such as being bullied, neglect, gaslighting, etc.

Though there are two categories of trauma, the key is that the body does not discriminate how it responds to any trauma. Every individual’s traumatic experience becomes fragmented at the sensory site of reception in an effort to protect the body from current or future harm. What this means is that the sensory experiences of the event are not fully processed; thus, causing a similar reactive recurring response. For instance, if you’ve ever been in a car accident, you know the airbag intimately. Yes, the airbag saved your life, but the experience of the airbag going off was imprinted in your body visually (seeing it go off), auditorily (hearing it go off) and olfactorily (smelling the sulfuric chemicals). If/when you consciously or unconsciously experience something similar (smelling something sulfuric, hearing a loud pop, or seeing something explode), your body will automatically go into protective fight/flight/freeze mode and do what it needs to do to protect itself. In essence, it is as if you were actively reliving the experience all over again. If never processed, the unresolved trauma can cause lasting mental, emotional, and physical effects.

2. What is EMDR?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. It was first developed by the late Dr. Francine Shapiro in the 1980’s.

3. How does EMDR work?

EMDR is a process whereby the memory and the current emotional, mental, and physical experiencing of the trauma are processed through bi-lateral stimulation or the engagement of both sides of the brain. Essentially, bi-lateral stimulation (e.g., eye movement from left to right/right to left following a light bar; or the use of pulsars in the left and right hands; or the counselor tapping the client’s left knee or hand, then the right knee or hand, and alternating back and forth for a period of time) is coupled with simultaneously recalling the traumatic memory. This allows the brain an opportunity to collect the fragmented sensory experiences and bring them back to the place where they can be properly processed. The emotional reactivity is removed from the memory; allowing the memory to be properly stored as a story, not a current reliving.

4. How do I know I’m ready for EMDR?

EMDR cannot be done without a highly trained professional. However, asking the question “Am I ready?” shows an awareness and a willingness to change and heal. This means you could be ready, but it is still a good idea to consult with a properly trained mental health professional and complete the appropriate assessments to gain clarity on whether EMDR will be right for you.

5. How do I find a good EMDR therapist?

Choosing a therapist is like choosing a new pillow. You want to make sure it fits perfectly. When choosing a therapist, make sure you find one that fits well with your personality. It is okay to come to the initial session with interview questions of your own. To find an trained EMDR therapist, use the EMDRIA (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing International Association) website as a starting point. Using this website will help you know you will be starting with a highly trained individual. 

REMEMBER: Working through trauma is not an easy task.  However, it is a good and necessary one. Don’t do it alone. Make sure you have a healthy and safe community around you to support you through the process. It is okay to be vulnerable, and it is okay to ask for help. These are signs of strength, not weakness.

For more on EMDR and mental health, listen to this week's podcast.

Dr. Mayfield is founder and CEO of Mayfield Counseling Centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which serves over 15,000 appointments a year. He conducts therapy with families, couples, individuals, and groups and has a passion to provide exceptional care for military service members and their families. He is a contributing author to Focus on the Family's Marriage and Parenting divisions and has recently completed a book for parents on self-injury and suicide. It will be published within the next year. Dr. Mayfield is also an Assistant Professor of Counseling at Colorado Christian University and hosts a weekly podcast called Candid Conversations with Dr. Mayfield.

Instagram: drmark24


Twitter: @drmarkmayfield

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