What is EMDR and Who Can Benefit?

What is EMDR and Who Can Benefit?

Over my next few posts, I want to share some information about a particular therapy service that I offer called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): a bit about what it is and how it works, and what I have learned from my experience with it both as a client and clinician. EMDR uses bilateral brain stimulation to lower the intensity of emotions and physical sensations associated with traumatic memories (https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/). In this entry, we explore who might benefit from EMDR—and the answer is, probably most people.

I find my therapy clients fall into two (very general) categories: those who specifically seek out therapy to deal with past trauma, and those who are living with the effects of trauma which manifest as other kinds of relational or behavioral health problems. The latter category will sometimes, understandably, tune out when they hear me talking about trauma because they define their problems differently: they have anxiety, depression, body image issues, feelings of isolation, sexual dysfunction, relationship conflict, low self-esteem, bad temper, addiction, general malaise or dissatisfaction, etc.

However, I often find that all of these problems—and many more—began with a traumatic experience or series of traumatic experiences. Healing the trauma transforms the present, either by eliminating the problem entirely or revealing new options for problem-solving.

But what is trauma? A 2014 interview with prodigious trauma researcher and therapist Bessel van der Kolk helpfully explains that “trauma is an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories” (https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/311/video-when-is-it-trauma-bessel-van-der-kolk-explains). More importantly, trauma alters future perception: in subsequent circumstances, a traumatized person will judge themselves, other people, and/or the world more negatively. Thus, rather than an isolated moment, the trauma becomes a lens that can be applied to any moment.

To their credit, my clients are a highly resilient group, and many have carved out niches—in their careers, hobbies, communities, relationships—where they are free of their trauma lenses. They are all the more surprised, therefore, when I suggest that certain events from their lives could be considered traumatic. Trauma encompasses a wide range of experiences, and even seemingly mundane events can qualify, particularly if they are a) chronic, or b) they are ignored, actively dismissed or otherwise unresolved in the moment.

Some oft-ignored traumatic moments in childhood include loneliness, parental divorce, teasing by adults or peers, authoritarian discipline (even without hitting/spanking), emotional invalidation or disinterest from caregivers, or witnessing conflict between adults. Adults are susceptible to trauma as well, and some underrated causes are job loss, a friendship break-up, financial insecurity, parental conflict/estrangement, injury/illness, car accidents, and the transition to parenthood.

However, this is not an exhaustive list of what qualifies as trauma, and no such list exists for a very important reason: everyone metabolizes life differently, and one person may identify an experience as traumatic while someone else who went through an identical experience will not; I do not measure the event in the past, I measure how painful and distorted the traumatic lens is in the present.

Towards this end, I am proud to offer a variety of targeted trauma therapy to my clients, including EMDR, which has demonstrated efficacy for treating traumatized individuals in numerous clinical trials (https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/). In the early phases of EMDR, clients begin to notice their trauma lens and, even though they cannot immediately correct the distortion, can imagine how life might be easier or more satisfying without it.


Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT, provides individual, couple, and family therapy in our downtown Bethesda office and virtually to those located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine!