Why EMDR is so Effective in Healing from Sexual Trauma

My work with survivors integrates several trauma informed modalities, the most foundational of these are somatic psychology, and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). When doing EMDR, I combine it with somatic psychology, parts work, and energy psychology.

EMDR is an evidence-based treatment for trauma, phobias, and other challenging feelings, thoughts, and sensations. During an EMDR session, the therapist uses bilateral stimulation, which is administered with either eye movement, tapping, pulses, or tones alternating between the right and left sides of the body. I predominantly use eye movement, with self-directed tapping as needed.

Bilateral eye movement is believed to facilitate communication across the left and right hemispheres of the brain, mimicking REM sleep. Increased left and right hemisphere communication is a marker of health.

EMDR appears to strengthen the connection between upper and lower brain centers (cerebral cortex, limbic system, and brain stem) as well, which aids in the distress associated with traumatic memories. Research suggests that bilateral stimulation used in EMDR treatment decreases the uncomfortable somatic sensations and nervous system arousal (brain stem), vividness of feelings and imagery, and emotional intensity (limbic brain) associated with traumatic memories.

EMDR supports shifts in the subconscious mind; this is called memory reconsolidation. It’s common for survivors to feel shame in relation to the traumatic event or to take on self-defeating beliefs in an attempt to make sense of why the traumatic event happened to them. Even when they’re old enough to understand that the shame is not theirs and they were in no way to blame for what happened to them (no matter what they were told or what they told themselves), it’s hard to let go of these deeply rooted distressing beliefs. Memory reconsolidation updates these feelings and beliefs to reflect what their inner wisdom and conscious mind now know to be true.

EMDR and PTSD

It’s estimated that 50% of sexual trauma survivors develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In my experience, the number is higher. Research doesn’t take into account those who develop or become aware of PTSD symptoms years after the traumatic event, which is fairly common. Women are more susceptible, and if one of your biological parents had PTSD, you’re three times more at risk.

Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. devoted a chapter to EMDR in his bestselling book The Body Keeps the Score. He shares research that he and his team conducted for the treatment of PTSD, comparing the effectiveness of drugs, in this case Prozac, to EMDR. He writes:

“As our Prozac/EMDR study showed, drugs can blunt the images and sensations of terror, but they remain embedded in the mind and body. In contrast with the subjects who improved on Prozac – whose memories were merely blunted, not integrated as an event that happened in the past, and still caused considerable anxiety – those who received EMDR no longer experienced the distinct imprints of trauma. It had become a story of a terrible event that had happened long ago.”

And that’s what we want in healing from sexual trauma, to no longer have to relive the traumatic experience day after day while suffering from intrusive trauma symptoms as though still under threat, to put the memory where it belongs, in the past. Talk therapy alone is not capable of this.

Is EMDR Difficult?

During an EMDR session, we pay attention to what thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise. Often, with unintegrated trauma, we have disconnected, numbed or dissociated from our bodily sensations and feelings in an effort to protect ourselves. The problem is remaining in these states takes a toll on our health, our overall well-being, and our relationships.

Bringing awareness to uncomfortable sensations, feelings, and memories, especially when you’ve been avoiding them, can be painful. The good thing is that emotions, sensations, thoughts and memories tend to move through quickly during EMDR, and EMDR helps you to better tolerate uncomfortable feelings and sensations. Furthermore, EMDR practitioners use resourcing methods to make sure you end the session feeling calm and grounded.

I use the container resource in my practice. Clients often tell me they’re amazed at how well it works. I teach them to use it on their own in between sessions as needed.

You can read more about what to expect in an EMDR session here.

A word of caution – EMDR has what’s called a Recent Events Targeting Sequence template. I advise against using it for sexual trauma survivors. I’ve had several survivors come to me who felt further traumatized after going to a therapist who used this method, which requires the survivor to tell their trauma story in detail. When the Recent Events Targeting Sequence is not used, there is no pressure to tell the details of the traumatic event.

In fact, you should never be pressured to tell the details of the traumatic event in therapy. Healing can take place without telling your story in detail; the story lives in the body and reveals itself in the work. For some survivors, it can feel helpful to tell their trauma story, and that’s welcome, but it should always be your choice.

Length of Treatment

EMDR uses a subjective unit of disturbance scale, with 10 being the worst discomfort or distress you can imagine and 0 being none or neutral. This scale informs us of when we’re done with an EMDR target – 0 or neutral. At this point it’s not uncommon for clients to say that the memory feels very far away, that it doesn’t overtake them anymore, many feel as though a weight has been lifted, they feel lighter with a positive and hopeful outlook.

The length of treatment differs from one individual to the next. Usually, with a big T trauma such as sexual trauma, it will take at least seven or eight sessions to get to 0 or neutral. Then, there may be other associated traumas to work through. It’s not uncommon for clients to do EMDR for relational or developmental trauma after working through the sexual trauma(s), and sometimes they’re all intertwined. So, a series of traumas, known as complex trauma and complex PTSD (CPTSD), take more time to treat than a single incident trauma.

Many of the survivors I work with come to me for adjunct therapy, often at their individual therapist’s suggestion, because I specialize in treating sexual trauma. Others come to the ongoing therapy group I facilitate for female-identified survivors residing in CA. Over the years, I’ve observed that clients treated with EMDR improve quicker than those who don’t choose to or are unable to do EMDR sessions.

Integrating trauma and healing from disruptive trauma symptoms cannot be rushed, yet the results I see with EMDR are impressive and continue to amaze me.

To your healing,

Erika

About the author
Erika Shershun, MA, LMFT
Erika Shershun, MA, LMFT, is an author, a licensed therapist in private practice in California, and a survivor of sexual assault. Erika’s passion for preventing others from spending extra years and resources searching for relief from disruptive and painful trauma symptoms lead her to specialize in working with survivors and those suffering from PTSD.