Therapist Lori Gordon-Michaeli breaks down what EMDR therapy is and how it can help people process and resolve traumas.

Developed by Francine Shapiro Ph.D., this special therapy, known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Exposure therapy (EMDR), can remove traumas stuck in our subconscious minds forever.

But, be careful: some therapists think they can learn this technique or use the light bar in all sort of ways that are self-taught.  If the therapist is not EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) trained through Francine Shapiro’s organization or trained by a certified trainer affiliated with EMDRIA, it’s not the same.

What exactly is EMDR?

The idea of EMDR mimics REM sleep.  While we are sleeping we dream.  While we are dreaming our eyes are rapidly moving back and forth under our eyelids. The computer that is our brain is trying to process and resolve data we either didn’t process during the day or are struggling with processing due to the severity of the trauma.  Hence, stress dreams or flash backs occur.

EMDR therapy happens while the patient is awake and in the therapist’s office.  The idea is to find the subconscious thought a person perceived about “themselves” as it pertained to the event they experienced.

Some of us can feel “unsafe,” not in control, inadequate or a failure, to name a few.  We carry this thought subconsciously.  The environment triggers us to feel things and react off this subconscious thinking.

How does EMDR work?

The therapist’s job is to help the client find these subconscious thoughts, and while bringing up a traumatic event, the patient sits in front of a moving light trailing their eyes back and forth after saying the subconscious thought out loud.

The movement of the eyes, with the recall of the event and the thought that lives in the subconscious creates the ability for the brain to reprocess the event leaving the patient with permanent relief — whatever triggers were plaguing them in their daily life are neutralized.

The therapist guides them on this journey knowing how to deal with blocking, dissociative events and anxieties as they come up during the session. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is always used in conjunction.

This technique is extremely effective and can alleviate suffering usually within a few months sessions depending on the complexity.  More complex cases can take longer.

Are there any side effects that can occur from EMDR?

EMDR cannot hurt anyone — it has no contraindicated effects if stopped in the middle of a session or after a session or two.  It is an emotion producer — I nicknamed it “the crying machine” because it is a powerful exposure therapy tool and the stored difficult feelings attached to the negative thought always appear.

But it’s nothing a good tissue can’t absorb considering you are always safe in your therapist’s office. Grounding is done to help you be present and once you go through it.  The event is remembered but the emotion is not relived anymore.  You have the possibility to shed the trauma from the front of your mind and put it to the back of your mind — you are free.

Who can benefit from EMDR?

EMDR is effective whether the traumatic event occurred many years ago or yesterday.  It is a wonderful treatment for first responders and veterans as well as people with PTSD and anxiety.  It is also indicated for stress and abuse.

EMDR is probably the single most important tool a therapist can have in his/her toolbox as it can be helpful for removing any subconscious negative thought a person holds that might be part of their reason for struggling currently.

There are other uses for this modality.  Currently I am working on using it to remove self-deprecating subconscious thoughts that might trigger emotional eating.

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Lori Gordon-Michaeli, LCSW, of Farmington Hills, owns Journey Within LLC Behavioral Health Services in Southfield, MI. ( She earned her master’s in social work at the University of Michigan. In her practice, she uses various methods including EMDR, CBT, DBT, TRT, art and journaling. She made aliyah to Israel at age 18 and lived there until age 42. She studied at Haifa University and is is fluent in Hebrew. As a world traveler, she has a global view and a background in world religions and diversity.  

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