The brain’s attempt to help us heal from trauma?

When people are jarred from sleep because of a nightmare, the disturbing images can be difficult to shake.

Even though they’re “just dreams,” nightmares can be very upsetting and can sometimes haunt us long after we’ve awoken. But believe it or not, there may be a good reason for them.

Nightmares are part of the brain’s attempt to help us resolve traumatic experiences. But when they wake us up too soon, a key process for healing gets interrupted.

So how can we finish what the brain is trying to start?

Francine Shapiro, PhD, the originator of EMDR, shares how this unique therapy could help. Check out the video below – it’s just 4 minutes.

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To find out how seemingly minor stressors can cause trauma symptoms, and how EMDR can redefine the way we look at the treatment of trauma, check out our Rethinking Trauma series.

Have you ever used EMDR with a patient? Please share your experience in the comments below.


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  1. Leslie Weichsel says:

    Do you know of a good therapist in the Washington DC area for severe PTSD?

  2. natasha lululu says:

    I have been traumatized repeatedly growing up. Recently there were terrorist threats in LA and NYC. I found myself furious that the schools were not immediately closed. That night I dreamt that my grandchild was molested while under my care. But to get through the day I am doing eye movements and I will figure out which presidential candidate would have closed the schools had they been president.

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  4. Yanti says:

    Dear Jo: I am sorry to hear about your experience with this EMDR clcaiiinn. In order to be good trauma therapist, it is crucial to understand dissociative phenomena. Having no memory for the first 12 years of your life can be very disturbing. While we don’t know each other it sounds like you may suffer from dissociative amnesia. These kinds of events only happen when there are multiple traumas. But you can’t get to them directly by using the active trauma processing phases of EMDR. These are phases three through six, they had named assessment, desensitization, installation, body scan. EMDR is not a method for memory retrieval. It seems to me, by your report, that you therapist did not spend enough time in the first two phases of EMDR. Phase 1 called history taking and evaluation is designed to facilitate the recognition of conscious traumatic memories that are put on a treatment plan so that you in the clcaiiinn can determine what memories you wish to reprocess (meaning release the pain from). Having such a long amnestic time period is a red flag to any seasoned trauma therapist of any stripe. Phase 2 of EMDR is designed to help the person develop all needed coping and self soothing strategies so that the person is ready to reprocess old traumatic material. Phase 2 can last for a session or two, or up to a year or two. One of the issues that Dr. Shapiro mentions is that a firm therapeutic relationship must be established in order to do trauma work. This doesn’t mean that you like it therapist, or therapist likes you. It means that the two of you have set goals, discussed the tasks each one of you needs to be active in, and by agreeing to both tasks and goals of therapeutic bond begins to develop. One issue that it sounds like you therapist missed was the issue of creating safety for you before starting the active phases of trauma work. Part of safety means talking things out until memories do start to surface, and/or taking the necessary steps in dealing with someone with a dissociative disorder. There are many strategies, I’ll just mention one. There is a technique called Frasier’s Dissociative Table Technique. This procedure is used to help someone with a dissociative disorder recognize that they have different parts (as we all do). Optimally All of our parts work together, only in this case there are parts that are protecting you from things that have happened during your first 12 years of life. Without creating safety by using those protective parts as allies to help the wounded child part no good work can be done. It seems to me that EMDR is not the problem. It seems that you’re therapist did not understand how to deal with you dissociative problem. As a result EMDR was misused and you suffered as a result. I’m sorry for your pain. If you ever do decide to try working with the trauma therapist again let me know what part of the country you are in and I will help you find someone who is competent in trauma and memory, as well as any number of different kinds of trauma therapies. While I do think EMDR practiced by someone who understands dissociation is your best bet, somatic experiencing, sensorimotor therapy, internal family systems, structural dissociation therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, are all reputable forms of treatment. Please remember this above all, it’s the quality of the therapeutic relationship as well as the clinical judgment of the seasoned clcaiiinn that will make the difference in any form of therapy. That is why when I train people in EMDR I spend a good deal of time helping them understand how the therapeutic relationship affects the work in all eight phases. I also spend a good deal of time lecturing on have trauma affects memory, how different kinds of attachment problems may need modifications in the standard methodology, and have different kinds of dissociative disorders need to have a much different approach when thinking through, and using EMDR methodology. Again I am sorry for your pain, and would be glad to assist you in finding competent help. Best wishes, Mark Dworkin LCSW, P. C.

  5. Sheelagh Montgomery says:

    Many years ago I discovered EMDR and used it with some success, but had some difficulty when clients had to re-experience severe trauma especially when it involved sexual abuse.
    In 2008 I discovered and was trained in Lifespan Integration which may be similar to EMDR, but LI uses a simple timeline of actual events, including trauma, but depends primarily on the client owning the happening rather than re-entering it . Neuroscientific knowledge of the brain informed EMDR’s ‘bilateral stimulation’ and also supports the LI assumption that new neural pathways can be developed which “prove” to the individual that the earlier traumatic event is over. EMDR uses a “safe place” and the same concept provides an out of time space in which to use Lifespan Integration to integrate all past experiences into the person of the present….
    Ref- Peggy Pace . Method described in Cathy Thorpe’s book ‘The success and strategies of Lifespan Integration’

    • Quiana says:

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    • Yess says:

      I’d come alone and that I’d seemed dtisraught. Though I had already been diagnosed, until the courthouse incident I had believed that my forgotten date was an isolated incident. Learning that I had actually looked up an address, driven there, interacted with someone and signed my name to a form all without any memories whatsoever really scared me. It also made me realize that all of my arguments about things I had or hadn’t done were related to these bouts of amnesia and not just falacies made up by other people.Now I live in fear, not knowing when or where I’m going to slip away or when I’ll come back. I do see a therapist as well as a psychiatrist, but neither has any experience with this type of thing so I’m looking for someone who does. As a side note, I’ve also had many episodes during which I can’t remember anything at all about myself. Nothing around me looks familiar and I have no idea who anyone is (including myself). It’s terrifying. Sometimes it only lasts a minute or two, but I have had it happen for much longer as well. I’m sure the 2 are related but I’m still very confused by it. I don’t know what the trauma I experienced was that could have caused this to happen. I have been under a great deal of stress, mostly financial, for several years now. Could that be causing these things to happen?

    • Mariano says:

      EMDR is saving my life, too. I feel as if my panrets made my sister into a monster and then feared her, and still fear her. They mellowed with age. She herself is middle aged and a minister, but a psychopath and a narcissist feared by her ex-husbands, me, and any one else in her way. I am shunned now, the outcast, because I won’t keep forgiving her rages and destructive behavior, because we are estranged now by my choice, for my safety. Thank you for your courage. I still hide. This book needed to be written.

  6. Joz Lee says:

    I read that if we do not resolve the trauma/conflict even go into ‘forgiveness’ we have ‘recurrences’ of the events.. .. to help us to come to a conclusion/ resolution. So the faster the better.

    German New Medicine calls them ‘Tracks’ going back in time, or a place, or someone (memory of them) etc.

  7. Elaine Dolan says:

    One time, flooding and then EMDR were used to access my infant and childhood molestation traumas. My body literally went from rigid to soft in one night–it unwound in my mouth, into my cranuim, down to my heart, and down to my tailbone. But I never *saw* the molestation, I felt it unravel my throat, and saw that my whole body had changed when I awoke from REM sleep.

    I would never allow that flooding to happen again, unless it was through a film or impersonal sequence, because it thrusts the *therapist’s* issues on the client. I think it’s a v-bad choice to process sexual trauma with a therapist who is the same sex as the perpetrator.

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  8. Janet says:

    Before EMDR I came through a long phase of dissociation. Though I’ve never experienced the pendulum swinging into chaos, I now feel much more in my life. With EMDR my mind usually wanders onto things in the room or unrelated ideas and I feel like I never experience much at all, either in the session or later on. Once again it feels like I am an exception to the rule. I hope Dr. Shapiro has mentioned this.

  9. art blank jr m.d. says:

    One pattern which repetitive traumatic nightmares follow, is that each edition of the nightmare shows clues about the leading edge of the processing efforts. This tends to occur naturally, and shows up often in fine details which will be noticed only if one is listening very closely. I’m referring to a natural, intrinsic healing processing thrust. This probably is more robust if the interpersonal context is supportive in one way or another, to include psychotherapy, or EMDR, etc. In other words, the everyday healing and problem solving function of dreams which Francine refers to, continues to be present in traumatic nightmares–though the intensity of the affect can obscure this if we are not looking and listening closely. Techniques which reduce intensity are often helpful, but it is important not to use them in the service of obscuring the underlying movement towards resolution and integration but rather to help focus on the latter, which shows the way the individual needs to go.

  10. Art Maines, LCSW says:

    I was a volunteer for an EMDR demonstration in grad school back in 1999. I was stunned at how effective it was, and so quickly. I knew instantly I had to get trained in this method, and have since gone on to full certification. I cannot imagine doing my work nearly as well as I do without EMDR. Thank you to Dr. Shapiro for developing such a profoundly life-changing modality.

  11. I have used EMDR for years with great success in helping alleviate the problems caused by traumatic experience. However, when complex trauma and dissociation are involved the client needs to be well resourced before and during EMDR use. Using other mind/body modalities to help stabilize the system can be useful preparation for EMDR. Western Massachusetts EMDRIA is having a conference May 4 on managing these difficulties when using EMDR. For more info go to

  12. stan says:

    There is a way to work directly with the dream while it is occurring. To use Dr Shapiro’s example, while the monster is chasing you in your dream, you turn around, and attack the monster, and usually overcome it. Even when you don’t ‘win’, you change the situation because you are no longer a passive victim. Again, in Dr Shapiro’s terms, you are ‘processing’ the repressed or ‘in abeyance’ memory. My exposure to this was through the book ‘Creative Dreaming’ by Patricia Garfield, but there are also many books on becoming lucid in dreams, and of course once you are aware in your dream, you can engineer whatever outcome you desire. :-) It’s very empowering. I haven’t had a nightmare, or even an unpleasant dream, since shortly after learning this process. Many years.

  13. Sandra Salsburg says:

    EMDR has been an AMAZING technique for resolving trauma. I use it in my private practice and with those in two substance abuse treament centers where I do consulting. It is a technique of rapid resolution of trauma with amazing results. Francine Shapiro should get a Nobel Peace prize for developing it.

  14. The brain’s ability to process and heal trauma is truly remarkable. I had a fire in my home in 1984 (no one injured, but a total loss of property). Subseqent nightmares initially portayed the fire as worse than it actually was, with images of my children burning, but over a relatively short period of time the nightmares became less frightening and the dreams turned to mastery, so that the final dream was that the fire had been very small and easily extinguished.

    I’ll be very interested to hear Dr. Shapiro talk in more depth about the ways EMDR supports trauma healing when the process becomes “stuck” or delayed.

  15. I use a form of EMDR on individuals with PTSD and Phobias the results are fast and permanent.

    I would normally reduce the stress/anxiety levels down to a level 3 or below, then use EMDR to reduce it to zero.

    I use this anxiety reduction method because from my experience it is really more effective.

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