5 min read
Help for Trauma: EMDR or Neurofeedback?

Trauma can have a devastating effect on a person’s physical and mental health and can impact every area of a person’s life. Family relationships, friendships, school, and work performance all suffer in the face of trauma. It often leads to: 

  • Disrupted Sleep

  • Nightmares 

  • Startle Response

  • Anxiety 

  • Depression

  • Many other difficulties 

Trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) take a heavy toll on individuals. Seeking help from a licensed professional therapist who has training in these conditions is crucial. 

An experienced trauma counselor will help you identify your triggers and teach you coping skills. They can guide you as you process emotions and memories tied to your traumatic experiences. “Name it to tame it” is a phrase introduced by author and psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel. It suggests that by describing what is happening in your body, you can “tame” the traumatic response. 

Additional Options Available

Some with PTSD or C-PTSD turn to other modalities such as neurofeedback or eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). Bessel van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, describes both of these options.

Many who suffer from the effects of trauma wonder if EMDR is better than neurofeedback. Which one should they choose? 

While both modalities help the brain process trauma, comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. They are just different. Yet both are highly effective. Many clients praise the benefit they receive, even from one or two sessions of either choice. Some find that it brings the same progress as a year’s worth of talk therapy.

Beyond Your Logical Brain

Neurofeedback and EMDR bypass the prefrontal cortex responsible for logical thinking. They reach much deeper into the root of the problem, thus accomplishing a great deal. 

For example, you can logically understand that hearing a garage door open is just that. It probably signals a loved one coming home. But even so, your whole body can tense, and you instantly go into a fight, flight, or freeze response because of an earlier association. 

Perhaps a garage opening coincided with your childhood abuser's arrival at home many years ago. And maybe, punishment soon followed. Rationally talking yourself out of being scared is pointless in these circumstances. 

You can spend countless hours discussing this issue in counseling and then still freeze in panic at the sound of a garage door opening. You may feel completely hijacked by your irrational brain in these situations. It takes you right back to the times when you were hurt after you heard the garage door opening. 

Often clients feel stuck in defeat and frustration. You may even blame yourself and dwell on thoughts of:

  • “This does not make sense!”

  • “What is wrong with me?”

  • “Why can’t I respond differently?” 

  • “I know better!” 

But arguing with an irrational part of the brain doesn't get you anywhere. Often, this situation is when clients find that EMDR or neurofeedback can be more useful than talking it through again.

Personal Experience

While I do not offer EMDR in my office, I have experienced a few sessions for myself in a professional counseling office. I had shared with my therapist that I had multiple traumatic events in my early years, and she offered to treat me with EMDR. 

For my first session, I chose to work on an event in my life from when I was about five years old. My father, an angry and explosive alcoholic at the time, arrived home drunk. My mother was cooking pancakes that I had requested. There was a little bit of smokiness in the room from the pan, causing my father to become angry and throw a tantrum. I remember loud shouting, things being thrown, and my mother pleading for him to calm down. 

I was scared. As a young child, I felt responsible for my father’s behaviors. I believed it was my fault since I had requested that my mom make me some pancakes. Had I not asked for those damn pancakes, we wouldn’t have endured this whole angry dad explosion. 

I felt like a bad girl deserving to be punished. This feeling may seem completely irrational to you, and I agree. But there I was. Even as an adult, a part of me was still in that frightened five-year-old body. I could repeat to myself a thousand times that my father’s behavior was not my fault nor my responsibility. But it didn’t matter. My irrational brain felt otherwise. 

First Session

During my first EMDR session, my therapist had me sit comfortably with arms and legs uncrossed, holding EMDR tappers in each hand. She had me visualize myself as a five-year-old, in the part of the house where the dreadful burnt pancakes scene unfolded. During this 45-minute session, she had me close my eyes and take big slow breaths. 

The experience felt emotionally intense as I re-lived and re-experienced this scenario. The therapist walked me through the entire event from start to finish. She used verbal prompts such as “What do you see?” and “What happened next?” and “What are you feeling at this moment?” 

Part of me was scared and silently screaming. Part of me wanted to get up and leave the counselor’s office and never return. Part of me trusted the process and the therapist and wanted to stay and see how this would unfold. None of this experience was easy or comfortable.

When I opened my eyes at the end of the session, I felt a huge sense of relief and resolution. I also felt tired and emotionally wiped out. My therapist said all of that was normal and to take it easy as I left the office to go about my daily routine. 

Mixed Results

A few days later, I explained my first EMDR session to my sister. I told her that I no longer felt upset or triggered thinking about the “burnt pancakes” event. My first EMDR session, although difficult,  was a total success. I was grateful for the experience.

But when the time came to return for another session and tackle another difficult situation, I panicked. A few thoughts such as “Should I skip it?” or “Should I pretend I am sick?” surfaced. My mind was resisting this essential but challenging work. 

I did show for my next weekly session and shared my internal resistance with my therapist. She acknowledged my feelings as legitimate and congratulated me for showing up and sticking with it. 

In my following two sessions, we tackled another painful event from my childhood. I had some medical trauma and had to be admitted to the hospital as a very young child. When a full session of EMDR did not bring a complete resolution to this trauma, my therapist recommended we repeat it. She said we could do sessions often as needed. 

The thought of having to do it all over again made me shudder. I knew it could work, but I just couldn’t see myself continuing. Would it get any easier? Maybe. Maybe not. Isn’t there something else we could try? Can’t we go back to just talking? 

I Needed Something Different

It was then she suggested I try NeurOptimal® neurofeedback. At that time, I had tried a few different types of neurofeedback with nothing to show for it. So while my initial reaction was “No thank you,” I was desperate to try something other than EMDR. 

That’s when I first tried NeurOptimal®. It helped me resolve my past traumas without having to relive, re-experience, or even talk about them. Sitting in a comfy chair while hooked up to a machine and listening to zen music seemed heavenly compared to the grueling EMDR experience. And I got the same, if not better, results. I never went back for any more EMDR sessions after starting NeurOptimal®. 

When treating trauma, a quality therapist will want the client to stay in the "window of tolerance" (a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegel).  NeurOptimal®, by its nature, is gentle and trauma informed. Many therapists choose NeurOptimal® neurofeedback, over EMDR, to keep some of their most sensitive clients from being re-traumatized. 

Find What Works Best for You

My friends who have tried EMDR with other therapists had varied experiences. Some were like mine, and others were entirely positive. In almost all cases, EMDR was highly effective and life-changing for the better. Others found that a combination of both neurofeedback and EMDR was the best mix for them. 

If you suffered a trauma that you can’t imagine talking about, then you might not be a candidate for EMDR yet. Many therapists recommend “priming” your brain and nervous system with neurofeedback first before attempting EMDR. 

NeurOptimal® neurofeedback helps the brain seek balance and self-regulation. A more stable nervous system enables you to respond to stress more effectively. This stability often makes you more ready to handle difficult conversations in a counselor’s office. 

NeurOptimal® Could Be the Right Fit for You

Everyone’s experience with EMDR and NeurOptimal® is unique. Although I shared my story, you will have your own journey as you find the best fit for you. Many of my clients come for NeurOptimal® sessions while simultaneously working with a counselor. In fact, adding neurofeedback may propel you further in your therapy and allow you to claim your best life that much faster.

And if you are interested in neurofeedback as a modality to address trauma, we’d love to connect. At Beaverton Neurofeedback, it’s an honor to walk with you on your healing journey.

Want to try NeurOptimal®? Schedule an appointment and experience what it’s all about.