Erika Shershun, MA, MFT
Why EMDR is so Effective in Healing from Sexual Trauma
Updated: Feb 21
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 at times 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 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 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 as well, which aides 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, vividness of feelings and imagery, and emotional intensity associated with traumatic memories.
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.
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 wellbeing, 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 templet. 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 units 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 trauma’s 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,