Why I never recommend EMDR for trauma treatment…(and why that makes me unpopular)

And why I’m ok with that…

Here’s where most, including this article miss the boat.  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/emdr-taking-a-closer-look/

Exposure therapy, talk therapy, and EMDR often decrease reported symptoms temporarily by walking a person through the horrors of their life from start to finish.

Linear… retrieving from their memories in the exact same way it happened.

But what fires together wires together – so every time the memory is retrieved the entire nervous system goes into sympathetic arousal, releases all the same chemicals of fight and flight as if you were in the event all over again, and you wire those neural pathways together even more. And the brain, preferring efficiency will use and reuse established wired together pathways faster and the most because it’s efficient. But doesn’t serve you for healing.

Symptom reduction from EMDR or flooding and cathartic therapies? Maybe… but mostly caused by dissociation – which is the highest level of activation at which point the brain in self preservation, flips a numbing switch to shut down. It’s not the same as coming down to baseline, or regulating the nervous system by completing fight or flight cycles to quench the kindling in the brain.

And that’s if EMDR doesn’t lead people into psychosis first – (which has happened… or rage, or panic attacks or worsening of symptoms).

And that’s also if it doesn’t drive that activation deeper into the body down the road in terms of insomnia, chronic pain, autoimmune disease, and more physiologically based or inflammatory symptoms – because if activation isn’t discharged, if parasympathetic soothing isn’t initiated, if trauma isn’t renegotiated in the nervous system, the activation has to go somewhere.

I’ve seen more people that have come to me for SRT (Self Regulation Therapy) for treatment, resolution, cure of their PTSD after horrible negative effects and worsening of symptoms after their EMDR treatments. Or feeling numbed out but now dealing with rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune, or psychosomatic complaints. And they’ve improved or resolved with SRT.

Not only is SRT more scientifically sound and built on multiple neuroscientific facts from leaders in the field (vs EMDR being birthed from the self report of one during observed eye movements on a walk), it is non overwhelming, reduces activation in the nervous system by staying within a range, creates new neural pathways around events rather than firing and wiring the old, and breeds not just symptom reduction but long term resilience and healing.

In fact, the creators of SRT asked the creator of EMDR about the science behind it to gain understanding and one couldn’t supply compelling evidence or explanation to support the claims. SRT was birthed out of cutting edge brain science about how the nervous system responds to, holds, and heals from trauma and overwhelm from multiple neuroscience theories from leaders in the field. The personal experience to support this collaboration of minds came later.

With SRT, in published research, first responders diagnosed with PTSD had 6 sessions each and by the end of those 6 sessions no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD at all. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD after 2 car accidents, a life threatening MRSA infection, my 3 year old son sick in the hospital (which they thought was early stage leukemia), a pending divorce, a subsequent suicide of my ex-husband, and being left with almost $100,000 of his debt and no father for my kids.

All in less than ONE year.

I used SRT initially for the chronic pain and permanent injury from my car accident, but quickly saw resolution of any and all symptoms related to PTSD.

Within a year I no longer had PTSD, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, insomnia, asthma, anxiety attacks… or anything else.

So I went back to grad school to get my masters, trained in SRT in my post grad speciality to the highest level and just had my case study published in a medical journal after working not just in my own private practice, but in non profits as a trauma counsellor for sexually assaulted children and teens.

Now I see the same results in the people I treat for PTSD, postpartum depression, anxiety, and depression.

Now I specialize in trauma therapy and PTSD treatment in my private practice and what I have heard as self report from previous EMDR clients confirmed what the science already told me. So I never recommend EMDR. I would never treat anyone with this modality, and I would never treat my own trauma this way. And when people ask me about it because it’s popular in the trauma ring… I visibly cringe and supply them with as much information from ScaerSchorePorgesLevine, Siegel, Post and others along with SRT psychoeducation to encourage them to choose a different route to healing whether it’s through my practice or not.

The same goes for exposure and flooding therapies, talk therapy, and treatment with LSD or other psychedelics. These treatments are highly activation and cause more sympathetic arousal in the nervous system, (especially substances which the body interprets as a poison) are often hard on the client mentally, emotionally, and physically, and have long term implications. Temporary symptom numbing at best, and long term impact as far as outcomes and resilience and mental stability.

There are better treatments than talk therapy and EMDR that science hasn’t caught onto yet – that work better than this and provide lasting resilience.

I know it’s popular. I know it has widespread training and funding out of a university to promote it – and at the time it was created, there was nothing else that people knew about… and there was nothing else funded (SRT comes out of a non profit association in comparison).

And for some people it provides relief. And for some people that relief is worth it no matter how uncomfortable the process. Still, I’d love to see long term follow up studies that look at psychosomatic symptoms 5 years + down the road. And I’d love more media to look at comparatives beyond just talk therapy/CBT as balancing one against the other for efficacy. To compare these two is flawed at best because they work so differently and might mistakenly assume that these are the best options out there.

As a therapist, it’s more encouraging and comforting for me to see people feel a sense of control, know that they know they are not going to feel overwhelmed beyond a range they can tolerate, and that they’ll leave feeling better each time with improvements in and out side of session occuring in a grounded, controlled, calm way that doesn’t cause them to re-live their traumas in session or out. Because we’re working with the entire brain… from the bottom up, and resolving the activation in the reptilian brain first working right brain to right brain and allowing for the frontal lobes (which are the last to get information anyway) to make meaning of it after – we get a more complete healing.

A whole-brained healing and a healthier nervous system that can handle future overwhelm and trauma much easier. It’s the only way in good conscience I can work with trauma for anyone… because I have experienced it as a client, a therapist, and in my work assisting in the teaching and training of other therapists. Side benefit… reduced vicarious trauma to the therapist too which reduces counsellor burn out long term.

It’s the only way I’ll work in this field until brain science has new knowledge to support a new and better way based on these principles of healing.

2 thoughts on “Why I never recommend EMDR for trauma treatment…(and why that makes me unpopular)”

  1. Avatar

    Tara: In 2017-2018, I underwent 16 grueling E.M.D.R. sessions, and now it seems that I’ve not only been thrust into the present moment (tick, tick, tick) but I also feel a disconnectedness, and a numbing of my feelings and emotions? My five senses were heightened, sight, touch, smell, etc. yet I feel like a zombie now. I seem not to be able to engage myself in life now?? Any feedback would be helpful. Have you heard of other E.M.D.R. patients/clients suffering like I am?? Thank you. Jade.

  2. Avatar

    So I had EMDR therapy 2 weeks ago, my therapist used an electric jolt to distract me, rather than eye movement. Since my session I’ve been highly unwell, almost a constant migraine, sore eyes, tired eyes, general fatigue, I ended up in the ER one day even. My psychologist doesn’t believe the EMDR is to blame but it literally started after my first session… I’ve been online and looking for any information at all about it but all I’ve found, outside of your blog, is that the side affects are nightmares but overall EMDR is perfectly safe.
    Have you head of anything similar to my experience?

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