EMDR and Interpersonal Trauma: Healing Relational Wounds

Some of the biggest wounds in life can stem from other people and even those closest to us. This interpersonal trauma may continue to create problems in our lives for years — or even decades — afterward. But according to Rebecca Kase, licensed clinical social worker and founder of EMDR training and consulting company Kase & Co., even longstanding wounds can be healed through the transformative power of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

“I’ve dedicated my life to training EMDR therapists because I want to contribute to healing as many people as possible,” Kase says. “Science has long shown this treatment’s effectiveness, and in my experience, its effects can be nothing short of revolutionary for patients.”

What is interpersonal trauma?

Interpersonal trauma occurs between people in a relationship. It involves emotional, verbal, sexual, or physical abuse and can be especially damaging to our psyche, sense of self, and self-esteem. This kind of trauma is commonly distinguished from that which can occur from experiencing natural disasters like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, or wildfires.

Interpersonal trauma involves close human connections, such as in cases of domestic violence, which typically occurs between spouses or partners. Likewise, friends, intimates, acquaintances, and relatives perpetrate approximately 80 percent of sexual assaults; strangers are responsible for the remainder. 

Child abuse and neglect also fall under the umbrella of interpersonal trauma, as can injuries related to the workplace and combat. A partner’s infidelity can create traumatic memories, as well as seeing violence happen to others in one’s community. No matter who or what caused the interpersonal trauma, when the survivor’s nervous system does not process the original events into memory effectively, the pain they cause is prolonged. 

“I’ve worked with people who were tormented by the same events from their past, over and over again, for decades,” Kase says. “Trauma can also make people vulnerable to anxiety or panic attacks. Some become depressed, while others are forced to relive flashbacks of the painful events. These symptoms can disrupt their normal lives and even make it difficult for them to sustain jobs or healthy relationships.”

Luckily, scientific studies show that EMDR is a safe, simple, noninvasive treatment that effectively heals multiple kinds of trauma, including interpersonal.

How EMDR heals interpersonal trauma

“EMDR addresses intrusive negative memories once and for all,” Kase says. “That way, they never ruin another day, hour, or minute.”

When psychologist Francine Shapiro first created EMDR in the 1980s, the revolutionary new treatment program struck some as strange, since it relies on simple physical movements — called “bilateral stimulation” — to intervene in sophisticated mental processes.

Today, however, decades of research have established EMDR’s effectiveness. Neuroscientists accept that the mind cannot be separated from the body, and researchers have recently identified the mind-body nexus in the brain.

“EMDR is an exceptionally powerful way to repair the mind and heal from trauma,” Kase explains. “When the therapist uses bilateral simulation, it queues the patient’s nervous system to take troublesome memories and, in effect, digest them again, but this time better. As a result, they are no longer lodged in the person’s psyche like a splinter. They recede into the background like normal memories, and the person finally feels free.”

In this way, EMDR resolves relational trauma, enabling patients’ nervous systems to break up dysfunctional memories and store them again in a healthy form. As a result, people can take the wisdom they’ve learned from that adversity, jettison the unhelpful parts, and move on with their lives unencumbered.

While EMDR sessions are different for everyone, Kase explained what patients can expect from a course of treatment.

What EMDR is like

“A course of treatment usually involves sessions spread out over a few months,” Kase notes. “During each session, you’ll be asked to remember the traumatic events, but you won’t have to do anything to prepare. For instance, the therapist won’t require you to come up with a story. You’ll just need to let the memories rise up in your mind’s eye.”

As the client recalls the memory and connects with the emotional distress and somatic sensations, bilateral stimulation is applied. “Bilateral stimulation may be provided in the form of eye movements, alternating tones, or alternating taps. While bilateral stimulation may sound strange, it has an effect on the nervous system and helps your system resolve the experience. Research shows that EMDR doesn’t work without the use of bilateral stimulation, therefore it’s a vital ingredient for success in EMDR therapy.”

Patients’ nervous systems naturally work on the maladaptive memories, discarding the distressing emotions, images, physical sensations, thoughts, and beliefs related to the experience. “Your job as the patient is to be open and allow whatever needs to come up to come up and just notice the experience,” Kase says. “Clients work through the memory and report that it no longer upsets them, they may not even be able to picture the experience, and when they think of it they feel peaceful and calm inside. Some people even have adaptive ah-ha’s or takeaways from the work.”

Retake control of your future

EMDR has helped millions of people put their pasts behind them, regain their mental health, and move on with their lives. If you or someone you love struggles with trauma stemming from previous relationships, interactions with others, or some other cause, then consider this powerful method of healing. With EMDR, you can retake control of your future.

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