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Trauma and EMDR: Common Questions

What is trauma? What are some examples of traumatic events?


Trauma can be any stressful event that overwhelms your nervous system’s ability to cope. Examples include witnessing death or violence, natural disasters, car accidents, sexual assault, child abuse or neglect, some types of medical treatment, forced migration from your home country, or other sudden, unexpected losses. Growing up in a family affected by trauma can also lead to trauma symptoms indirectly as children absorb their parents’ sensitivity to stress. A history of previous trauma, especially in childhood, may make you especially vulnerable to each new traumatic event. The same event may not be traumatic for every person; the key is the impact of the event on the nervous system. Although PTSD is the diagnosis most often associated with trauma, traumatic experiences can also lead to depression, anxiety, panic attacks and many other mental health conditions. 

What are prolonged adverse experiences, and what is their impact?

A famous study found that certain adverse childhood experiences, such as exposure to a parent’s drinking or mental illness, divorce, or ongoing abuse or neglect, were closely connected with a higher lifelong risk of both physical and mental health conditions. Since then, although trauma was once thought of as a one-time or series of one-time events, prolonged adverse experiences are now understood to be just as traumatic, with similar ongoing nervous system stress reactions and symptoms. Here’s a link to the original adverse childhood experiences questionnaire: .This not an exclusive list, as prolonged adverse experiences may include other long-term stressors such as poverty and racial or ethnic discrimination. Greater knowledge of the long-term impacts of trauma and prolonged adverse experiences has led to a focus on both prevention and treatment.

What is EMDR?

EMDR is a trauma treatment technique that uses eye movements or other bilateral stimulation (right-left movements). “Often when something traumatic happens, it seems to get locked way in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts, feelings, and so on. Since the experience is locked there, it continues to be triggered whenever a reminder comes up. …The eye [or other bilateral movements] we use in EMDR seem to unlock the nervous system and allow your brain to process the experience…The important things to remember is that it is your own brain that will be doing the healing and that you are the one in control.” EMDR also does not require talking about the traumatic event in detail. For more information see:

Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing; Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures. New York: The Guilford Press, Pg. 123-124. 

What are other trauma treatments you use? 


While I have found EMDR to be a very effective in-depth trauma treatment, including for the impacts of prolonged adverse experiences, other treatments also help create an inner sense of safety, build emotional regulation skills, and develop self-awareness and self-compassion. These include DBT, mindfulness and internal family systems techniques, as well as an awareness of how unresolved trauma may affect attachment, relationships, and family dynamics. 

Be softer with you. You

are a breathing thing. 

A memory to someone. A

home to a life.

--Nayyirah Waheed

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