Using EMDR for Stress Reduction

Relaxing with an image

This blog will address using EMDR for stress reduction.

You wouldn’t be alive if you didn’t experience stress. Change and challenge keep our lives interesting.

*Stress comes in many forms—but in general there are two kinds of stress, the kind you choose, and the kind that chooses you. Even positive changes can be stressful, although generally not as much as  unexpected things like accidents, illness, loss, or natural disasters that can cause grief, trauma, depression, or anxiety.

*How does positive change cause stress?
Anything new in your life is going to have challenges and things for you to get used to. Change in status, from single to married, large purchases like a home or car, or having a child, can include many decisions and chances to feel anxious about what comes next. Asking yourself to take on a commitment can be scary.  It brings you in touch with the unknown future and your ability to make wise decisions. And there are plenty of ways for things to go wrong and need evaluation/correction along the way.

*For difficult changes, it is clearcut how stress comes in.
There is so much to attend to. Normal life, with its inherent stress moves on. But you are grieving, recovering, coping with experiences that are outside the realm of normal daily life. When someone dies, there are the forms, the taxes, the details of a funeral or memorial that you must attend to in the midst of grief and loss. If you lose your job, you need to look for another one even though you may be having problems sleeping or eating.

*You may be familiar with the terms fight, flight, and freeze.
These describe physical states that your brain induces when you are faced with a threat, physical or emotional. When you are subjected to stress, you could be traumatized by it. This happens if the stress continues over a period of time and/or if it is major. In these states, your body goes into a self-protective state of arousal.  Flight will try to escape the threat. Stand and fight is just what it says. Freeze is staying very quiet and still until the danger has passed. The challenge in healing and reducing stress is to convince your mind and body that the threat is now over.

*We have all heard about stress reduction which includes: changing your lifestyle, exercising more, eating healthier, addressing health concerns, addressing negative thinking, in general, paying attention to taking better care of yourself and adding positive behaviors and thoughts into your daily activities.

Using EMDR for stress reduction
*How EMDR can help you feel better and recover from stress

*EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy is another tool to help you cope with stress. EMDR helps you manage some of the feelings that accompany stress. It can help you feel more secure within yourself, and more relaxed and grounded. It might work to help you feel more able to actually accomplish some of the stress reduction tasks that you have on your to-do list but don’t seem to get to.

*EMDR is a form of therapy that helps by using bilateral stimulation. This means that you are stimulating your brain with right and left eye movements, right and left buzzer sounds in your hands, or right and left beeps in your ears. This kind of stimulation helps positive thoughts get bigger, and helps process traumas from the past so they stay in the past. And you get to feel more freedom from trauma in the present. You and your therapist will talk about your history, especially difficult or adverse experiences in your childhood, traumas you have gone through, and your positive experiences. 

*In the preparation phase, you find ways to feel calmer and more connected to positive influences/people in your life. You can also use visualization, imagery, and body sensations that increase self enhancing thoughts and feelings. When processing trauma, you find safe ways to think about and feel the difficult experience without getting completely immersed in the past. The bilateral stimulation helps to clear up cognitive and emotional blockages, and also blockages in the body. You can experience a feeling of well being, like a resetting of your emotional thermostat. The next step is to practice taking your new found healing experience and imagining how to cope with possible future recurrences of stress or anxiety related to the trauma you have processed.

*Here is an example of how using EMDR therapy for stress reduction could work.
In this fictional situation, a woman in her 40’s is coping with her mother’s cancer diagnosis. She has 3 children under the age of 10. Her husband is very busy at work and often works quite late. He is tired and sometimes cranky around the children and his wife. The woman is feeling very sad, overwhelmed with childcare and her own demanding work life. Plus, she is having to deal with her mother’s cancer treatment.  In therapy, we might start with thinking about what kinds of positive support this woman has. This could include friends, relatives, and support groups. And what kinds of support are available for the children?

*Another kind of positive support centers around finding visualization, imagery, and positive support figures to think about as an antidote to overwhelm and negativity. These could be places to think about such as a favorite beach, a vacation hideaway, or a place in nature. Or she could find images of protectors, angels, nurturers, heroes, whatever works for her.

The woman starts feeling more comfortable and supported in the therapy relationship, and within herself. She then begins to think about how her relationship with her mother was formed during her childhood and what challenges she might want to work out within herself using EMDR. This could include guilt about being angry with her mother even though her mother is now ill. Perhaps her mother was neglectful or tried to control her too much. There might be specific incidents that she remembers when she felt very hurt or alone as a child. Or perhaps she was in an accident or had a scary health concern herself as a child.

*As the woman focuses on her past, she and her therapist could figure out what negative or protective beliefs she has about herself. Some examples of negative beliefs could be: “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t deserve to be happy.” She would also be asked to think about the way she would like to feel, such as “I’m good enough just the way I am.” or “I deserve to have the life I want.” Through the bilateral stimulation and processing, the woman would be able to feel less bad about the previous trauma and actually believe the positive feelings and thoughts from the inside out.  This is only one of many scenarios about how therapy could go.

*Do you experience physical signs of stress such as headaches, muscle tension, getting sick more often? Do you feel unable to get started or get back on track with self care routines? In these times of long work hours, multiple caregiver roles, constant change in work or home life, worry about the future, it’s no wonder that more people are experiencing the negative effects of stress. It may be worth your while to consider getting some help. If your childhood had some positive elements, and you had a good attachment with a caring person, your therapy could start helping you feel better in a short amount of time. If your childhood was more complex, with fewer positive attachments, help might be a bit more lengthy, but certainly worthwhile.

Phyllis Klein is a psychotherapist in San Francisco and Palo Alto. She has been helping women with stress related problems, trauma, depression, and anxiety, for well over 30 years. To reach her, call 415-273-1036 or email


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