EMDR: A Biblical Counseling Perspective

We are seeing an alarming increase in the number of heretofore authentic biblical counselors embracing and promoting EMDR as valid, viable, and acceptable. This is why we are doing more than lightly touching on this modality of trauma care in our biblical counselor training program.

According to the EMDR International Association (EMIDRA),

“EMDR therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or completing homework between sessions. EMDR therapy, rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from the distressing issue, allows the brain to resume its natural healing process.

EMDR therapy is designed to resolve unprocessed traumatic memories in the brain. For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.”[1]

A Little History

A little history on EMDR and the theories that drive it will be helpful.

Francine Shapiro, the psychologist who originated EMDR, recalls having accidentally “discovered” this technique when she found that rapid back-and-forth eye movements reduced her own anxiety (Shapiro 1989b).

Shapiro thereafter applied this procedure to her own clients with anxiety disorders and claims to have met with remarkable success. Since the initial published report of its use in 1989, EMDR has skyrocketed in popularity among practitioners. In 1995, approximately 14,000 therapists were licensed to perform EMDR in the United States and other countries. Today, over 100,000 therapists are licensed worldwide—and the number is growing.

Although EMDR is alleged to be a complicated technique that requires extensive training (Shapiro 1992), the treatment’s key elements can be encapsulated fairly succinctly.

Clients are first asked to visualize a traumatic event as vividly as possible. While retaining this image in their mind, they are told to supply a statement that epitomizes their reaction to it (e.g., “I am about to die”). Clients are then asked to rate their anxiety on a Subjective Units of Distress (SUDs) scale, which ranges from 0 to 10, with 0 being no anxiety and 10 being extreme terror. In addition, they are told to provide a competing positive statement that epitomizes their desired reaction to the image (e.g., “I can make it”), and to rate their degree of belief in this statement on a 0 to 8 Validity of Cognition scale.

Following these initial steps, clients are asked to visually track the therapist’s finger as it sweeps rhythmically from right to left in sets of 12 to 24 strokes, alternated at a speed of two strokes per second. The finger motion is carried out for 12 to 14 seconds in front of the client’s eyes. Following each set of 12 to 24 strokes, clients are asked to “blank out” the visual image and inhale deeply, and are then asked for a revised SUDs rating. This process is repeated until clients’ SUDs ratings fall to 2 or lower and their Validity of Cognition ratings rise to 6 or higher.

How does EMDR therapy work?[2]

EMDR therapy is broken down into eight different phases, so you’ll need to attend multiple sessions. Treatment usually takes about 12 separate sessions.

Phase 1: History and treatment planning

Your therapist will first review your history and decide where you are in the treatment process. This evaluation phase also includes talking about your trauma and identifying potential traumatic memories to treat specifically.

Phase 2: Preparation

Your therapist will then help you learn several different ways to cope with the emotional or psychological stress you’re experiencing.

Stress management techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness may be used.

Phase 3: Assessment

During the third phase of EMDR treatment, your therapist will identify the specific memories that will be targeted and all the associated components (such as the physical sensations that are stimulated when you concentrate on an event) for each target memory.

Phases 4-7: Treatment

Your therapist will then begin using EMDR therapy techniques to treat your targeted memories. During these sessions, you will be asked to focus on a negative thought, memory, or image.

Your therapist will simultaneously have you do specific eye movements. The bilateral stimulation may also include taps or other movements mixed in, depending on your case.

After the bilateral stimulation, your therapist will ask you to let your mind go blank and notice the thoughts and feelings you’re having spontaneously. After you identify these thoughts, your therapist may have you refocus on that traumatic memory, or move on to another.

If you become distressed, your therapist will help bring you back to the present before moving on to another traumatic memory. Over time, the distress over particular thoughts, images, or memories should start to fade.

Phase 8: Evaluation

In the final phase, you’ll be asked to evaluate your progress after these sessions. Your therapist will do the same.

Is it Effective? The jury is still out.

An enormous amount of literature has been published about the efficacy of EMDR. A recent examination of the literature available on the US National Library of Medicine website yielded a range of results, with the efficacy of EMDR varying across studies.

Efficacy seems to be anecdotal and personally subjective, with other forms of similar treatment protocols minus the eye movements often providing the same results.

In the words of Harvard psychologist Richard McNally, “What is effective in EMDR is not new, and what is new is not effective.”

THE BIBLICAL COUNSELING RESPONSE

As biblical counselors, we are called to serve those who face significant life-changing events, sometimes even long after they have occurred. For the PTD (Post Trauma Distress) sufferer, those events have not stopped occurring for them in very significant ways.

So, how do we help them break free of the cycle? How do we help them live in the current reality and not in the trauma and loss of the past?

We need to have a biblical worldview and work from a biblical framework if we are to be God’s agents of grace and truth for these sufferers. How do we do that if Scripture does not directly speak to EMDR?

What is suffering? Where does suffering come from? What do we do with suffering? What does Scripture say about suffering?

Is suffering simply a matter of bad things negatively affecting our neurons, or is there more to it than that?

If we believe as the world does that simply relieving physiological aspects of suffering is all a person needs, we neglect the rest of the person and what God desires for them. By focusing on the material, we ignore the soul of the person. So much for soul-care, right?

Is our focus to be on relieving their symptoms, or on helping them turn to God and seek His help in the midst of the suffering?

What ends up being missed in this conversation is that God’s Word speaks specifically against practices such as hypnotism and EMDR (which is similar to hypnosis in many ways).

While our concordance will not provide us with a cross-reference for either, we need to understand the twelve forbidden spiritual practices in the Old Testament.

These practices were not only forbidden by God, but He also condemned those who were involved in them. To be cursed of God and condemned forever is something one ought to want to avoid, right?

“When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination [studying omens and signs to determine the future], one who practices witchcraft [one who manipulates nature for a desired outcome] , or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell [the use of music, the human voice, or movement to gain psychic control of another], or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so. Deuteronomy 18:9-14—emphasis added

Then they made their sons and their daughters pass through the fire, and practiced divination and enchantments [casting a spell; the use of music, the human voice, or movement to gain psychic control of another], and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him. 2 Kings 17:17—emphasis added

With the world — and now, many within the biblical counseling movement — welcoming, lauding, even preferring EMDR to any other ‘therapy,” what is a New Testament believer to do?

Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the world to this present age, BUT be transformed (metamorphoo) by the renewing of your mind so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.”

We need to employ the Biblical principle of “put off/put on” articulated here and elsewhere in Scripture -(Ephesians 4:22-24)

  1. We do this first by taking our thoughts captive and bringing them into surrender to the truth;
  2. We reject those methods and practices — especially spiritual practices — that God condemns and forbids, or that are proffered in lieu of God’s remedy;
  3. Then we break the old patterns and replace them with new ones (put off/put on), being transformed by the renewing of our mind.

We have already seen how easy it is for us to remember best what we are most emotionally connected to.  When dealing with trauma, there is legitimate emotional content to the things we have experienced. To deny the truth of what happened and the effect on us is to live a lie — and THAT is not something that is welcome in God’s kingdom, nor is it part of His prescription for our life.

And to accept a worldly (or demonic) alternative to God’s prescription for life and godliness allies us with God’s primary enemy instead of with Him.

The Holy Spirit is the One who reveals to us all truth, including the truth about who we really are and what we really need. 

Psalm 139:23-24: Examine me, O God, and probe my thoughts. Test me and know my concerns. See if there is any idolatrous way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way

John 16:13:  When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come.

That is why we are to entrust the work of revealing the truth to the Holy Spirit to show us our hearts and minds. (2 Corinthians 3). To accept that bilateral stimulation is the key that unlocks the inner-man is not only grossly in error, it is supplanting the role and work of the Holy Spirit.

If we hold to the sufficiency of Scripture, we dare not turn to the methods and practices of the world to help God’s image-bearers. It is the Gospel and a personal relationship with God in Christ that is to be our agenda and our focus.

We need to pay close attention to the underlying worldviews and philosophies that these modalities are built on, what the goals are, and how they propose to accomplish those goals. Anything that does not point us back to God as our primary source of all truth and healing is a usurper, a counterfeit, and a fraud.

And all these things are from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and who has given us the ministry of reconciliation. In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making his plea through us. We plead with you on Christ’s behalf, “Be reconciled to God!2 Corinthians 5:18-20 — emphasis added

Christians who hold EMDR as valid, who employ EMDR to try and help people, have a desirable goal in mind. However, just because a person has a desirable goal in mind does not mean that whatever means they use to achieve that goal is acceptable to God. With EMDR we have the forbidden spiritual practices of divination, witchcraft, and enchantments married to superstitious scientism, all wrapped around the idolatry of the expedient.

God has declared His Word sufficient for all matters of life and faith (2 Peter 1:3-4). As Jeremiah admonished, “Let us examine and probe our ways, and let us return to the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:40, NASB)

Soli Deo Gloria


[1]  https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/

[2] From Healthline article; Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP. Written by Ana Gotter. Updated on July 15, 2019  https://www.healthline.com/health/emdr-therapy#benefits

Published by: Pastor Warren Lamb

God has granted me the honor of being adopted as one of His sons and of serving His people as a Bible teacher and Biblical counselor. My primary area of counseling expertise is often referred to as "high-end" counseling: survivors of trauma and abuse, especially childhood sexual abuse, church abuse, narcissistic abuse, domestic oppression, sex-trafficking, kidnapping, and sole-survivor counseling. As a survivor myself, God uses my own healing journey to help bring hope and healing to others (a la 2 Cor. 1:3-4). Abuse and oppression are NEVER okay with God! When it comes to oppression and abuse, there is no "Switzerland," no neutral territory - you either side with the oppressor or with the oppressed; there is no middle ground. To find out more, visit our website https://tilbcc.com

Categories Biblical Counseling, Counseling Issues, EMDR, Post Trauma Distress, PTSDTags, , , Leave a comment

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