EMDR Technique and the Christian Faith

By Sarah Earles, MS, LPC, NCC | May 30, 2022 

EMDR, or eye moment desensitization and reprocessing, is a relatively new counseling technique. Discovered by Francis Shapiro in 1987, it has since been validated by numerous empirical studies (Rodenburg, 2009; Shapiro, 2014; Shapiro, 2018; Wilson et al, 2018). While not explicitly a Christian therapy, EMDR fits very well with the Christian faith. This is why many of the therapists at Christian Family care use this modality.

EMDR is an eight-phase protocol. The protocol helps alleviate negative thoughts stored with trauma, replacing them with positive beliefs (Shapiro, 2018). This fits with the Christian idea of replacing lies with truth. Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 encourages readers to do just that, writing, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV). The Mailberger Institute (2015) finds that through EMDR, survivors of abuse “begin to separate out the real abusers from God.…In so doing…the client becomes more open to God, not as another abuser, but perhaps different than what they had always thought.  In other words, they are free to relate to God in truth, allowing Him to be the loving, merciful, grace filled God that He is.” When believers know God as who He is, they are able to relate to him and know his truth.

EMDR is based on what is known about the brain, and about the way memories are stored. According to the Adaptive Information Processing Model, the foundation of EMDR, traumatic memories are stored maladaptively… that is they are stored without positive, resourceful information (Shapiro, 2018). The goal of EMDR is for a client to bring up these memories, and instead of storing them with maladaptive information, process them and re-store them with adaptive information, also known as a positive cognition. This is not a skill the brain needs to learn, but rather something the brain can do on its own. This is why educators like Lauren Day (2022) like to say, “Trust the brain” and “Trust the process.” For the Christian, this ability of the brain to reprocess memories points to the goodness of God’s design. Psalm 139:14 says that humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (New International Version, NIV). Believers are not just trusting their brains, though. They are trusting the God who made the brain and allows it to do such things.

EMDR is also a process that leaves space to invite God in. Therapist Jennie Dalcour shares that she likes EMDR because she is able to pray for clients while they process during nonverbal bilateral stimulation (a part of the protocol that helps with brain integration) (Personal communication, February 14, 2022). Clarity Christian Counselor shares that they “integrate God in to [the] process of EMDR by inviting him in to help…identify lies [believed about] the world as a result of…past experiences.” EMDR is not a protocol that insists on a certain belief about the world. Rather, it is one that can be founded on the rock-solid foundation of who God is.

EMDR is not a modality exclusive to Christian clients, however. It is what believers call a “common grace.” A common grace is that which is “an expression of the goodness of God…every favor, falling short of salvation, which this…world enjoys at the hand of God” (Storms, n.d.). The gift of medicine is one example, and Therapist Audi Kolber says that EMDR is the same way. She says, “It’s God’s own goodness that gives us medicine to help us when we’re sick, and similarly God’s own goodness that gives us tools like EMDR” (The Weary Christian, 2018). This is why both believers and non-believers can use this modality.

What can believers do to make sure that their EMDR therapy is Christ-centered and Christian founded? First, they can make sure that their therapist is a believer. This ensures that the experience in therapy will be processed through a lens of God’s truth. The Got Questions website (2022) states, “As with most forms of therapy, the usefulness and truthfulness depend in large part on the counselor and the client. If a therapist and a client are committed to biblical truth and seeking healing ultimately from God, EMDR could be an acceptable means toward that end.” Similarly, clients can make sure that they are basing their own cognitions on biblical truth, not their own thoughts. As Got Questions also states, “If this positive cognition is based on biblical truth, then there will be no issue. But if it is based in worldly wisdom, then it could result in one problem simply being exchanged for another.” Exchanging problems is not the true and full healing clients desire. It is not what their Christian therapists want for them either.

Is EMDR therapy right for every Christian? No. There are certain conditions that exclude it. Most therapists have a screening process before they take clients through EMDR to make sure it is appropriate. Some clients are not comfortable with EMDR, either. That is okay, too! For those looking for trauma processing that fits within their Judeo-Christian ethics, however, EMDR might be something to consider.

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EMDR, or eye moment desensitization and reprocessing, is a relatively new counseling technique. Discovered by Francis Shapiro in 1987, it has since been validated by numerous empirical studies (Rodenburg, 2009; Shapiro, 2014; Shapiro, 2018; Wilson et al, 2018). While not explicitly a Christian therapy, EMDR fits very well with the Christian faith. This is why many of the therapists at Christian Family care use this modality.

EMDR is an eight-phase protocol. The protocol helps alleviate negative thoughts stored with trauma, replacing them with positive beliefs (Shapiro, 2018). This fits with the Christian idea of replacing lies with truth. Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 encourages readers to do just that, writing, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (NIV). The Mailberger Institute (2015) finds that through EMDR, survivors of abuse “begin to separate out the real abusers from God.…In so doing…the client becomes more open to God, not as another abuser, but perhaps different than what they had always thought.  In other words, they are free to relate to God in truth, allowing Him to be the loving, merciful, grace filled God that He is.” When believers know God as who He is, they are able to relate to him and know his truth.

EMDR is based on what is known about the brain, and about the way memories are stored. According to the Adaptive Information Processing Model, the foundation of EMDR, traumatic memories are stored maladaptively… that is they are stored without positive, resourceful information (Shapiro, 2018). The goal of EMDR is for a client to bring up these memories, and instead of storing them with maladaptive information, process them and re-store them with adaptive information, also known as a positive cognition. This is not a skill the brain needs to learn, but rather something the brain can do on its own. This is why educators like Lauren Day (2022) like to say, “Trust the brain” and “Trust the process.” For the Christian, this ability of the brain to reprocess memories points to the goodness of God’s design. Psalm 139:14 says that humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (New International Version, NIV). Believers are not just trusting their brains, though. They are trusting the God who made the brain and allows it to do such things.

EMDR is also a process that leaves space to invite God in. Therapist Jennie Dalcour shares that she likes EMDR because she is able to pray for clients while they process during nonverbal bilateral stimulation (a part of the protocol that helps with brain integration) (Personal communication, February 14, 2022). Clarity Christian Counselor shares that they “integrate God in to [the] process of EMDR by inviting him in to help…identify lies [believed about] the world as a result of…past experiences.” EMDR is not a protocol that insists on a certain belief about the world. Rather, it is one that can be founded on the rock-solid foundation of who God is.

EMDR is not a modality exclusive to Christian clients, however. It is what believers call a “common grace.” A common grace is that which is “an expression of the goodness of God…every favor, falling short of salvation, which this…world enjoys at the hand of God” (Storms, n.d.). The gift of medicine is one example, and Therapist Audi Kolber says that EMDR is the same way. She says, “It’s God’s own goodness that gives us medicine to help us when we’re sick, and similarly God’s own goodness that gives us tools like EMDR” (The Weary Christian, 2018). This is why both believers and non-believers can use this modality.

What can believers do to make sure that their EMDR therapy is Christ-centered and Christian founded? First, they can make sure that their therapist is a believer. This ensures that the experience in therapy will be processed through a lens of God’s truth. The Got Questions website (2022) states, “As with most forms of therapy, the usefulness and truthfulness depend in large part on the counselor and the client. If a therapist and a client are committed to biblical truth and seeking healing ultimately from God, EMDR could be an acceptable means toward that end.” Similarly, clients can make sure that they are basing their own cognitions on biblical truth, not their own thoughts. As Got Questions also states, “If this positive cognition is based on biblical truth, then there will be no issue. But if it is based in worldly wisdom, then it could result in one problem simply being exchanged for another.” Exchanging problems is not the true and full healing clients desire. It is not what their Christian therapists want for them either.

Is EMDR therapy right for every Christian? No. There are certain conditions that exclude it. Most therapists have a screening process before they take clients through EMDR to make sure it is appropriate. Some clients are not comfortable with EMDR, either. That is okay, too! For those looking for trauma processing that fits within their Judeo-Christian ethics, however, EMDR might be something to consider.

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References

Day, L. (2022, January 28-30). EMDR Basic Training

Got Questions. (2022, January 4). Is EMDR therapy something a Christian can consider? Got questions: Your questions. Biblical answers. https://www.gotquestions.org/EMDR-therapy.html

New international Version Bible. (2011). Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/

Rodenburg, R., Bejamin, A., de Roos, C., Meijer, A.M., & Stams, G.J. (2009, June 24). Efficacy of EMDR in children: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(7), 599-606. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2009.06.008

Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal 18(1), 71-77). doi: 10.7812/TPP/13-098

Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (3rd edition). The Guildford Press.

Storms, S. (n.d.) The goodness of God and common grace. The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/goodness-god-common-grace/

The Weary Christian. (2018, July 9). Traumatic memories? Aundi Kolber on a “game changing” way of treating them. The Weary Christianhttps://thewearychristian.com/traumatic-memories-aundi-kolber-on-a-game-changing-way-of-treating-them/

Wilson, G., Farrell, D., Barron, I., Hutchins, J., Whybrow, D, & Kiernan, M. (2018, June 6). The use of eye-movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder-a systemic narrative review. Frontiers in Psychology 9(923). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00923

References

Day, L. (2022, January 28-30). EMDR Basic Training

Got Questions. (2022, January 4). Is EMDR therapy something a Christian can consider? Got questions: Your questions. Biblical answers.  https://www.gotquestions.org/EMDR-therapy.html

New international Version Bible. (2011). Bible Gateway. https://www.biblegateway.com/

Rodenburg, R., Bejamin, A., de Roos, C., Meijer, A.M., & Stams, G.J. (2009, June 24). Efficacy of EMDR in children: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29(7), 599-606. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2009.06.008

Shapiro, F. (2014). The role of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in medicine: Addressing the psychological and physical symptoms stemming from adverse life experiences. The Permanente Journal 18(1), 71-77). doi: 10.7812/TPP/13-098

Shapiro, F. (2018). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy: Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (3rd edition). The Guildford Press.

Storms, S. (n.d.) The goodness of God and common grace. The Gospel Coalition. https://www.thegospelcoalition. org/essay/goodness-god-common-grace/

The Weary Christian. (2018, July 9). Traumatic memories? Aundi Kolber on a “game changing” way of treating them. The Weary Christian. https://thewearychristian.com/ traumatic-memories-aundi-kolber-on-a-game-changing-way-of-treating-them/

Wilson, G., Farrell, D., Barron, I., Hutchins, J., Whybrow, D, & Kiernan, M. (2018, June 6). The use of eye-movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in treating post-traumatic stress disorder-a systemic narrative review. Frontiers in Psychology 9(923). doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00923