EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness Help Heal PTSD

September 26, 2019
EMDR therapy and mindfulness is one of the most effective treatment combinations for people with post-traumatic stress. In this article, we'll discuss what they are and why they work so well together.

Today, we’re going to talk about the effectiveness of EMDR therapy and mindfulness for healing post-traumatic stress. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a clinical practice that started as a treatment for trauma. The objective was to reduce symptoms such as hypervigilance and intrusive memories. Therapists started to use it with soldiers returning from Vietnam and female victims of sexual violence.

EMDR therapy is based on the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model. This model argues that your mind has the innate ability to process anything that happens to you in a healthy way. The problem arises when you don’t correctly process a traumatic experience. In that case, the perceptions get stored exactly how your brain codified them in the first place, along with distorted thoughts, feelings, and images from the experience.

Many prestigious therapists successfully combine EMDR with mindfulness practice. In general terms, mindfulness is the conscious and judgment-free observation of what happens in your mind. It requires acceptance, compassion, and honest curiosity. Together, these two techniques are proving very effective for healing trauma and depersonalizing traumatic events.

A traumatized woman who needs EMDR therapy and mindfulness.

EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing

Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, created EMDR therapy. Her idea transformed early eye movement therapies into the most comprehensive paradigm of information processing there is.

Today, countless doctors use Shapiro’s technique. The goal of EMDR is to go beyond simply relieving symptoms of trauma. It focuses on evoking positive feelings and profoundly changing deeply held beliefs. The ultimate goal is for the patient to also change their associated behavior.

In effect, EMDR treats trauma as an information processing disorder on the basis that the mind has the ability to heal itself, as long as nothing is blocking the way.

The metaphor that people usually use to describe it is the skin’s ability to heal a cut in less than a week, as long as there’s no splinter in the wound. In this case, the splinter is the dysfunctionally-stored memory.

In EMDR, the way a memory is stored and processed is pathological, not the traumatic event in and of itself. The therapy works by stimulating the brain so that it recovers and processes unprocessed or uncured memories and links them to positive memory networks. That leads to natural and adaptive restoration of your memories, which reduces their emotional toll.

How do EMDR therapy and mindfulness work together?

In EMDR therapy, the dysfunctionally-stored memories (isolated, shapeless, and piled up in their original form in the limbic system) are processed in the neocortex in the form of semantic memory. The semantic form that you give the memories helps you control the emotions surrounding those memories. It allows the memories to exist with a coherent, personal narrative.

EMDR also relieves the autonomic sympathetic nervous system, associated with traumatic experiences, and considerably reduces physiological activation.

This is where mindfulness comes in. In 1972, Dr. Laurel Parnell, a well-known EMDR therapist, became very interested in mindfulness. She was especially interested in the analogy of observing your mind as a laboratory and using that detachment to discover your own truths.

Parnell started to use mindfulness along with her EMDR therapy after completing several mindfulness training retreats with pioneers such as Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein.

Many Tibetan monks also use visualization and the power of imagery to cultivate important qualities such as compassion, power, and wisdom. Mindfulness is part of yoga training, which emphasizes body awareness on a very deep level. Mindfulness helps you experience information instead of judging it.

A woman meditating by the water.

Focused on the present moment

EMDR therapy and mindfulness both focus on the present moment. That’s how they help patients reframe traumatic events or depression as transitory events of the conscious mind.

In conclusion, this two-pronged approach is designed to release the trauma that has remained trapped for so long. It can help you leave a state of hypervigilance and finally process traumatic and stressful memories in a healthy way.

  • Shapiro, F. (2017). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures. (3rded.). Guilford Press.
  • Boyd, J. E., Lanius, R. A., & McKinnon, M. C. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder: a review of the treatment literature and neurobiological evidence. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience : JPN, 43(1), 7–25. doi:10.1503/jpn.170021
  • Hase, M., Balmaceda, U. M., Hase, A., Lehnung, M., Tumani, V., Huchzermeier, C., & Hofmann, A. (2015). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in the treatment of depression: a matched pairs study in an inpatient setting. Brain and behavior, 5(6), e00342. doi:10.1002/brb3.342
  • Linde, Jason N. (2019). Mindfulness and EMDR Therapy. Pychology Today