June is National Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. It’s estimated that seven to eight percent of the world’s population will have PTSD at some point in their lives. PTSD Awareness Month is dedicated to raising awareness about the condition, reducing the stigma, and increasing knowledge of and access to treatment. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing) Therapy has proven to be highly effective in treating PTSD and many other issues.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. This could be a rape/sexual assault, natural disaster, a major accident, combat, emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, psychological abuse and manipulation, neglect, violence, or threat of violence. PTSD can happen due to one specific traumatic event, or to repeated or ongoing trauma over time (Complex PTSD or C-PTSD). Women are twice as likely as men to develop PTSD.

People with PTSD often experience intrusive thoughts, such as flashbacks or a feeling that they are re-living the experience or watching a tape of the event over and over. Another symptom of PTSD is avoidance. People may avoid places or things associated with the traumatic event, or avoid talking about it. They may also be unable to remember parts of what happened, or have distorted thoughts about why it happened, potentially blaming themselves and affecting their self-image. Feelings of fear, guilt, or shame can greatly impact daily functioning and the ability to enjoy life.

Hypervigilance is another common symptom of PTSD. The person may always be on high alert to protect themselves from further danger. This is exhausting to the nervous system. Often the person will have difficulty concentrating, irregular sleep patterns, nightmares or restlessness, and be unable to fully focus or relax.

Many people who are exposed to a traumatic event will experience some or all of these symptoms in the days immediately following the event. PTSD may be diagnosed when symptoms occur for longer than a month, and result in difficulty functioning and a decreased quality of life. Even though trauma leaves an imprint, we can develop new neural pathways and heal the pain of the past. One of the most researched and highly effected ways of resolving trauma is through EMDR Therapy.

What is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories, it was developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. EMDR differs from other forms of therapy in that it does not require extensive discussion of the trauma or issue being targeted. Instead, techniques used during EMDR remove blocks and allow the brain to continue with its natural healing process.

Laila Narsi with Francine Shapiro
Laila Narsi with Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., Creator of EMDR Therapy

How Does EMDR Work?

When stressful events occur, our nervous system responds with fight, flight, or freeze. This built-in system is designed to protect us by bypassing the thinking part of our brain and reacting automatically. Sometimes, after the event has passed, we continue to stay in the fight, flight, or freeze response as our brain is trying to make sense of what happened. The distress stays with us. EMDR therapy helps our brain to process the memories that caused the distress, so that the natural healing process of the brain can occur. We will still remember the event, but the feelings of overwhelm or anxiety are resolved.

How Well Does EMDR Work?

EMDR has been extensively researched and found to be extremely effective. Rather than taking months or even years to resolve trauma, some studies have shown that 84–90% of single-trauma victims no longer have post-traumatic stress disorder after only three 90-minute sessions. Another study found 77% of combat veterans to have resolved their PTSD after just 12 sessions. This is in contrast to more traditional methods of psychotherapy that once took years. Clients have described their experiences with EMDR therapy as release, freedom, and hope.

EMDR Therapy uses bilateral stimulation (i.e., eye movements, tapping, or sounds) to process the traumatic memory, emotion, or body sensation in order to let go of painful emotions and negative cognitive beliefs. Often a touchstone memory is identified to use in processing. The touchstone memory is the first trauma memory that is deeply connected to our current difficulties and negative beliefs. It may be the first time we felt inadequate, worthless, not good enough, or in fear of our life. Through research, we have found that BLS activates the right and left side of your brain, processing stuck memories. BLS can also be used outside of trauma for situations that bring up stress and anxiety in the present moment or when preparing for future events by resource building to calm the nervous system. It is important that EMDR Therapy always be done by an experienced, trained, and Certified EMDR Psychotherapist.

One client of mine described her experience with EMDR as helping to “bring (her) out from the dark in a very comforting way.” She was injured in a serious motor vehicle accident, had anxiety related to PTSD and an unwillingness to drive again and to return to work. Through EMDR therapy she was not only able to regain a normal life but thrived in all areas of her professional, social, medical, and personal life.

Is EMDR Just for PTSD?

In addition to PTSD, EMDR therapy is highly effective for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, grief and loss, sleep issues, addiction, and more. Over 100,000 clinicians use EMDR therapy, and millions of people have been successfully treated over the past couple of decades.

I have known Laila and her work since 2005. She utilizes a variety of psychotherapeutic modalities such as Mindfulness, EMDR Therapy, and hypnosis, allowing her to treat extremely challenging cases. Laila is a knowledgeable and compassionate therapist that I highly recommend.

Uri Bergmann, Ph.D.
Former President of EMDRIA, author of Neurobiological Foundations For EMDR Practice

Photo by Harry Quan