EMDR and Childhood Trauma: Healing from a Traumatic Past

The repercussions of childhood trauma ripple into adulthood for many people. Physical and mental health can suffer because of unresolved memories and feelings associated with trauma. EMDR therapy and childhood trauma can be paired to help patients in residential treatment come to terms with their difficult pasts. If you are still living with painful trauma, EMDR along with a comprehensive, individualized treatment plan can actually fade those memories.

Childhood trauma is an unfortunately common occurrence. Experiencing trauma at any age can be damaging, but for children with brains and emotions still developing, the damage can be severe. Many adults who went through traumatic experiences as children still struggle with those memories. The trauma spills over into adult emotions, behaviors, and even physical and mental health. But there is hope. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a trauma-based therapy that, along with comprehensive treatment, can provide individuals with relief from painful memories.

Childhood Trauma and its Lingering Effects

Traumatic experiences during childhood are unfortunately not uncommon. By the age of 16, more than two-thirds of children report having experienced at least one traumatic event. The types of trauma reported include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Violent loss of a family member
  • Natural disasters
  • Assault
  • Neglect
  • Accidents or serious illness

These and other traumas happen to many children, and the effects of those experiences can cause lasting symptoms and problems. Many adults still live with the after-effects of trauma, especially those who went through repeated or regular trauma, like ongoing abuse. Studies even show that the negative effects of trauma can last into and past middle age. Some of the potential effects of childhood trauma in adults are:

  • A shorter life span, by as much as 20 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Physical health problems, including insomnia, poor immune function, and a greater risk of having more illnesses
  • Difficulty controlling negative emotions, like shame, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and anger
  • An increased risk of mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders, depression, and trauma disorders
  • An increased risk of substance use disorders

The impact of trauma as a child is serious, but there are effective treatments that can help if you are struggling to come to terms with painful memories. EMDR is a useful and effective type of therapy that can actually change how your brain processes those memories. As part of complete treatment in a residential setting, it is possible to overcome trauma and enjoy a much better quality of life.

What is EMDR?

EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, was created in the late 1980s as a way to treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The major idea behind the therapy is that if you experienced trauma and are still struggling to cope with it, it is because you have not yet appropriately processed the memories of that experience. The memories continue to be intrusive and to cause distress, and they carry along with them emotions and even physical sensations from the actual trauma.

A therapist trained in EMDR works with trauma patients to process the troubling memories and change how the brain is storing them. This differs from other types of therapy, which aim to change patients’ emotions relative to past experiences. With EMDR, you essentially train your brain to diminish the memories, which results in a reduction in painful emotions associated with them.

The way a therapist does this is through bilateral stimulation, typically through side-to-side eye movements. A therapist may also use tones on either side of the patient or tapping motions with one hand and then another. The stimulation occurs while you are thinking about the painful memories, and the result is that they begin to fade. Patients usually engage in a couple of EMDR sessions per week for several weeks.

EMDR Therapy and Childhood Trauma – Does it Work?

The research into EMDR’s effectiveness is overwhelmingly positive. Of course, this isn’t a perfect therapy or a cure, but in one study 77 percent of patients with PTSD experienced significant improvements in symptoms after a cycle of EMDR.

Other studies have found that EMDR is more effective than other types of treatment for trauma disorders. One of these compared EMDR to prolonged exposure therapy, another standard therapy for trauma patients. Those who received EMDR therapy stayed in treatment longer and had greater relief from symptoms. Another study looked at trauma patients who received either standard care or EMDR therapy months after treatment. Those who went through EMDR had more lasting relief from symptoms.

The effectiveness of EMDR therapy is strongly positive. Most people benefit from this therapy. It may not be a complete solution, or a total cure for the after-effects of childhood trauma, but it is a valid, useful tool. If you are still struggling with traumatic memories from your childhood, EMDR, along with other therapies and treatments, could be life-changing.

Begin Your Recovery Journey.


How EMDR Complements Residential Treatment

When McKenzie lost her job after missing a lot of days due to her severe anxiety and depression, she knew it was time to get help. She thought she had moved past and come to terms with the verbal and physical abuse perpetrated by her alcoholic mother when she was younger. It only went on for a year before her grandparents adopted her and removed her from her mother’s home, and it was more than 20 years ago.

But, when she kept feeling waves of anxiety over seemingly nothing and periods of depression that left her unable to get out of bed, McKenzie started to wonder if that abuse was still haunting her. She went to a clinic for screening and was diagnosed with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, and depression. It felt overwhelming to be facing all these issues, so McKenzie decided to enroll in a three-month residential treatment program.

The main focus of her treatment plan was individual therapy with both EMDR to process her abuse trauma and cognitive behavioral therapy to help change negative thoughts and manage anxiety and depression. It took a few weeks before McKenzie started to feel better, but the therapy, along with spending time in support groups with other patients, began to pay off. She started sleeping better and also got help learning how to prepare and eat healthier foods, which improved her moods drastically. Regular meditation class became the favorite part of her day.

Residential treatment for childhood trauma focuses on trauma-based therapies, like EMDR. Treatment plans include much more than that, though. A residential program can provide highly individualized treatment plans, working with each patient’s needs and also interests, using holistic care and alternative therapies like massage and recreation or art therapy, all based on what works for each person. Together, all of these elements provide a safe and effective program for reprocessing and finding relief from childhood trauma.

If you or someone you care about is unable to move past trauma from childhood, it’s time to seek professional support. A good residential treatment will create an effective plan for care that should include EMDR therapy.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.