What is EMDR? Can it Really Help Gay Men with Trauma?

by | Gay Trauma

I first sought counselling years ago for a feeling of being “stuck” in events from my past. As a gay man who was raised in a religious community that wasn’t gay-affirming, I had a number of experiences from growing up that felt like they were painfully branded onto me.

I’d encounter some situation or person that would send my brain and body into the feeling that I was right back at that event from the past. It was intensely stressful not always knowing when this was going to happen or why.

Sometimes it was clear what event from my past was being triggered, and other times it was a sense that my current response to something was not related to the present, but vaguely to something in my past.

To put it simply, my experience receiving EMDR was life-changing. Those past experiences don’t bother me anymore. In fact, I can now benefit from how much wiser and stronger I’ve grown from these past experiences.

EMDR was extremely cathartic, draining, difficult, yet relieving and empowering. After I’d finished EMDR, I knew I wanted to learn how to do EMDR so that I could help others effectively and efficiently get the same amazing results.

What’s EMDR? I think I’ve heard of that band before

While you may have heard the term EMDR before from a friend or on television, it’s not an acronym for a pop music group from Canada. EMDR stands for Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It’s a type of counselling that’s been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

It involves working with memories, body sensations, core-self beliefs, and emotions to get rid of the residual emotional, somatic, and cognitive leftovers of painful past experiences.

In essence, EMDR is a form of emotional surgery that heals emotional wounds.

But before I go any further, what do I mean by “trauma?”

A simple way to define “trauma” is: any event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope

Trauma often feels like the description at the start of this article–a feeling of your responses being stuck in the past. 

When you’re triggered, your body often tries to mobilize by going into a “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” response. This response is actually a good thing when it’s working properly. It’s a response that’s been evolved to protect us from immediate danger. 

But the problem is, unprocessed trauma often lays waiting, ready to be activated, or “triggered,” when we encounter some current experience or reminder of our past. Our brain and body kick into overdrive thinking we’re experiencing that past event again and tries to protect us, even though we may not be in any present danger.

This type of pattern is often scary, confusing, and intensely energy-draining. You might be reading this and thinking: damn, yeah no kidding, I know exactly the feeling you’re talking about. If you can relate to this, you’ll want to keep reading.

How does EMDR work?

EMDR works by activating your brain’s natural ability to heal itself.

EMDR counselling is based on the adaptive information processing (AIP) model, which is founded on the idea that our brains have a natural ability to heal and process our experiences in a healthy and useful way.

Yet, extremely stressful experiences can overwhelm the brain’s natural processing and healing abilities. When the information related to a particularly stressful experience is unsuccessfully processed, the original perceptions can be stored basically as they were initially encoded, along with any distorted thoughts, images, sensations, or perceptions from the experience.

These unprocessed memories kept in the brain and body are what cause distress, and are what EMDR targets. EMDR works by stimulating the brain through something called “dual attention stimulation” (DAS). More on DAS in a bit. This helps kickstart the brain into processing unprocessed traumatic memories, adaptive memory integration, reduced emotional intensity (desensitization, or the “D” of EMDR), and linking to positive memory networks (reprocessing, or the “R” of EMDR).

EMDR uses DAS to help engage the healing process. A DAS is usually a form of visual, auditory or tactile stimulus that goes back and forth, stimulating each side of your brain in short sets usually about 30 seconds long. Traditionally, this is done by a counsellor moving their hand back and forth in the client’s field of vision. Now, there are many other ways that have been shown effective to implement a DAS. 

In my online counselling practice, I use web-based EMDR software that lets my clients see a glowing ball that moves across their screen in different directions which I control from my end. This glowing ball can also be paired with an auditory tone that moves between your right and left ear when you’re wearing headphones. 

Interestingly, EMDR seems to have a similar effect as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, during which the mind and body integrate information. This is also the phase of sleep in which most dreams occur. Similarly, during EMDR your brain goes wherever it needs to heal. Of course, the difference being that you’re not sleeping when you do EMDR. Though you may be quite tired after an EMDR session.

What can you expect in an EMDR session?

EMDR sessions can be done in a typical 50 minute counselling session, but are more effective in longer 80 minute sessions. I first teach you a few grounding strategies, and then we use a systematic method to identify an issue to target with EMDR. I ask you some specific questions about the experience, including the sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts, and emotions, so that we can bring the experience into your memory in a way that helps you process it. Then I guide you through a number of DAS sets using the web-based software I mentioned above.

During these sets, I ask you to focus on specific aspects of the distressing experience and you let your mind wander wherever it needs to go to heal. This process continues until your thoughts and beliefs about yourself change to being less disturbing and more positive. During DAS sets, you may experience strong images, sensations, and emotions related to the experience we’re targeting, but these pass by quickly for most clients, and are just part of the healing process. Afterward, most clients report a significant reduction in how disturbing the memory of an experience feels.

If you’d like to know more about EMDR, this 10 minutes video gives an excellent overview.

How long does EMDR take?

This is one of the reasons I love EMDR: it’s effective and efficient. Although the type of issue and severity may affect how many sessions will be required, most clients will see results within one to two sessions.

EMDR sounds pretty “woo-woo,” does it actually work?

When I first heard about EMDR I was sceptical. I’d seen lots of unsubstantiated claims about how to get emotional healing in the past, and the description I read of EMDR was giving me all sorts of red flags.

Moving my eyes back and forth is supposed to make me feel better…? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Yet, decades of research show that EMDR is an extremely effective way to treat trauma. EMDR might seem strange, but it undeniably works.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense, as well as many other governmental and health agencies around the world support EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD and trauma. You can read more about the research on EMDR at the EMDR International Association’s website.

Okay, but does EMDR work for gay men?

Yes. I can say this based on my own clinical experience with gay men, and a number of research studies. EMDR works for gay men.

Some of the issues that gay men might work on with EMDR include:

➡️ Past coming out experiences

➡️ Rejection or ridicule by friends, family, or a religious community

➡️ Past experiences of homophobia, racism, or other discrimination

➡️ Shame about sexuality and/or sex

➡️ PTSD, anxiety, and depression

➡️ Past relationship traumas and break-ups

➡️ Low sense of self-worth

I’m interested. How do I know if EMDR would work for me?

One of the things that’s so great about EMDR, is that for most people, it will be a good fit.

If your counsellor is trained in EMDR, they’ll be able to assess if and how EMDR can be implemented for your specific struggles.

When I work with clients, I have them do a comprehensive intake assessment which assesses their suitability for different counselling approaches, including EMDR.

Then in the first one to two sessions of counselling, a client and I will work on understanding the issue they’d like to work on in more depth before mutually deciding if EMDR is the right approach to take moving forward.

Ready to see if EMDR is right for you? Click the button below to get started.

Blog Bio Jordan Gruenhage Canada Gay Counsellor Therapist

Jordan Gruenhage

MA, CCC, RCC

As a counsellor at The Centre for Gay Counselling, Jordan excels at helping fellow gay men understand their emotions better, heal from past trauma, and grow their sense of self-worth so that they can enjoy living fully as themselves. He believes that gay men have inherent worth, and that they deserve to live fulfilling lives. Interested in working with Jordan? Click the button below to get started.