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Relational Trauma and EMDR

By Adrienne Loker, LCSW, EMDR, SE Therapist

Most people are familiar with shock #trauma – an immediately life-threatening event, like an assault or an accident. But relational trauma is subtle. The most painfully impactful ones happen over time, where trust has been developed, and then betrayed. We value the relationship with our emotional abuser, which clouds our objective view of their behavior. We engage in defending and rationalizing the harm that they cause, because we can’t fathom that someone we trust, love, or respect could be capable of harming us. The only way we can make sense of the emotional pain we’re experiencing is by believing we are somehow to blame – we question our reality, we try harder to please, and we ultimately exhaust ourselves into making mistakes.

I liken shock and relational trauma to a motor vehicle accident. Shock trauma is one significant car crash that follows a clear storyline: there’s a beginning (we were safe), a middle (we were not safe), and an end (we were safe again). When a traumatic event is bookended by safety, trauma treatment is simpler – like removing a tumor.

Relational trauma, on the other hand, is the equivalent of multiple fender benders, varying in significance, throughout every single day over the course of many years. It’s nearly impossible to identify the most impactful car accident, because it’s not actually about the accidents – it’s about not feeling safe around vehicles and roads, and the impact that transportation phobia has on the ability to show up for life. If shock trauma is a tumor, relational trauma is a metastasized mess.


How does EMDR help?

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an accelerated trauma therapy that is delivered in a condensed format. In a few sessions, we can achieve years’ worth of therapeutic results, compared to a traditional talk therapy approach. This is because #EMDR works directly with survival (trauma) memories located in our amygdala.  

Put differently, if trauma was a packrat closet, talk therapy would focus on talking about how messy the closet is and how it needs to be cleaned. Whereas EMDR would actually clean the closet.

EMDR is protocol driven – meaning it follows a series of steps to ensure fidelity to the model. In standard EMDR protocol, we enter the trauma memory through visualization, followed by the associated negative cognition, then the emotion, and then the physical sensation.

This is called the set-up. Once the set-up is complete, the therapist facilitates bilateral stimulation to jumpstart reprocessing. Bilateral stimulation alternates between activating the left hemisphere and then the right hemisphere of the brain. This taxes the working memory, which then moves pathological memories out of maladaptive memory networks and into adaptive memory networks. It works similarly to REM sleep, where we process our day, digest our stress, and prune and consolidate our memories.

At the completion of an EMDR session, an individual should be able to visualize the traumatic memory without it causing distress and without feeling that the negative cognition is true anymore.

With shock trauma, addressing a singular traumatic memory using EMDR is a simple and powerful process. #PTSD can be cured in a handful of sessions. But with complex PTSD, such as relational trauma, standard EMDR protocol will be limited, due to the emphasis on memory targeting.

A more comprehensive and gentle approach to using EMDR with relational trauma integrates #somatic therapies. Somatic therapies go deeper into our neurobiology – transcending the amygdala and working directly with the autonomic nervous system. In this way, #somatictherapy focuses on what’s happening in our fight/flight/freeze responses in real time over staying with a particular memory. The clinical work then shifts from desensitizing a memory, to rebalancing our entire survival response system.

The prolonged nature of #relationaltrauma alters our sense of self. Utilizing the multiple car accident analogy, standard EMDR protocol would address one fender bender at a time. A somatically-informed approach to EMDR would target the phobia of transportation, rather than the accidents themselves.

If you’re tired of living with complex PTSD, then it’s time to stop throwing spaghetti at the wall and commit to a #traumatherapy process that’s clinically proven to work. Call or email us to take the next steps in getting your life back: 804-203-2100 or

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