Why EMDR Treatment for Sexual Trauma?

Trauma PTSD. Female in PJ's with head buried in her knees looking distraught

In the United States, one in three women and one in six men will experience some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). Survivors of sexual trauma often don’t know how to cope with what has happened to them, or how to express their feelings in a healthy way. Many survivors of sexual abuse suffer from overwhelming shame, fear, depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  NSVRC reports that 81% of female victims and 35% of male victims will develop PTSD. EMDR therapy for treatment of sexual trauma has been proven to be highly effective.

What is EMDR and How Can it Help?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, is a psychotherapy technique that has been successfully used to treat people who suffer from panic attacks, anxiety, PTSD, and other emotional issues. Before EMDR, these issues would be treated through cognitive behavioral therapy alone. While this treatment can be successful, it often takes many, many sessions for maximum relief.

EMDR, on the other hand, has been considered a breakthrough modality because it can bring quick and lasting relief from emotional distress.

When we experience trauma such as sexual abuse, the natural coping capacity of our brain becomes overwhelmed and we experience the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. EMDR therapy helps reprocess those traumatic memories so they are no longer psychologically disturbing or disruptive to our lives.

What Does an EMDR Therapy Session Look Like?

While EMDR will use an integrative approach to therapy, it also focuses on some unique techniques. In particular, EMDR uses bilateral stimulation to create change at the brain level while focusing on a traumatic memory. Forms of bilateral stimulation include left-to-right eye movements, alternating bilateral sound using headphones, or alternating tactile simulation using a handheld device that vibrates in each hand. Your therapist may use one or more of these forms of bilateral stimulation.

It is believed that EMDR induces a fundamental change in the circuitry of the brain, similar to what happens during REM sleep. Unprocessed trauma memories are stored in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze.” EMDR helps the brain process and store that memory in a part of the brain that is less reactive, and helps people integrate and understand memories within a larger context of their own life experiences.

But EMDR is more than a set of techniques. As part of the therapy, clients are able to identify limiting beliefs that are holding them back, like “I’m not good enough.” As the memory is processed and the distress is reduced, the negative beliefs are replaced with positive thoughts that are more supportive and helpful.

By addressing these thinking patterns, people are not only processing past memories. They are creating new ways of seeing their current circumstances, allowing them to respond in a healthier fashion. This can ultimately lead to significant positive change in their lives.

If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual abuse and would benefit from EMDR therapy for treatment of sexual trauma, please reach out to me. I would be happy to discuss how this technique may be able to help.