Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an integrative and powerful therapeutic approach used to treat single-incident traumas such as car accidents, assaults, and natural disasters. This modality is also effective for processing and repairing long-standing childhood and relational wounds. 

Attachment Focused-EMDR is adaptable and client centered. Oftentimes, people do not know what their anxieties (relationships, work, phobias) link to in their history. Through the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS-alternating sounds or tapping), AF-EMDR literally moves the traumatic or charged material to a more neutral place, changing the way that memory is stored in the brain-body connection. 

Upsetting or traumatic memories are stored as visual images, emotions, body sensations, and core negative self-beliefs (I am worthless; I am not good enough; I am helpless; It is my fault). These memory networks of feelings, images, or body sensations contribute to feeling stuck, powerless, and easily triggered. Without knowing all the layered psychic and bodily connections, many people experience physical symptoms of anxiety, addictions, irritation, and depression, or struggle to be fully present. 

Working with an AF-EMDR therapist helps people process memories in their entirety (even non-verbal, non-accessible parts) until they are integrated. Other types of therapies, such as Insight and CBT alone, do not produce the same integrated results because such modalities preference the speech centers of the brain in the right hemisphere and can rekindle trauma networks in the left hemisphere as it is being spoken about. Bottom-up approaches, such as AF-EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, work to change how we respond to trauma or stressors by building capacity in our autonomic nervous system responses and brain neuroplasticity.

Emotions and traumatic reactions are largely non-verbally held in the amygdala and hippocampus. When traumatic memories and experiences are processed and new synaptic connections are created or calmed using AF-EMDR, the nervous system becomes more regulated. Healing how the body stores upsetting experiences and learning how to manage the nervous system when it gets activated, leads to feeling grounded and present, softens reactive edges, quiets self-critical voices, befriends discomfort, and opens one’s eyes to beauty and trustworthy connections.

In the hands of a well-trained, developmentally knowledgeable practitioner, AF-EMDR is an integrative and holistic approach that combines cognitive, emotional, and somatic healing, with attachment repair.

EMDR was originally developed by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D. in the late 1980s. Laurel Parnell, Ph.D., who trained in the 1980s under Dr. Shapiro, helped to expand the use of EMDR by integrating therapist-client flexibility, clinical intuition, resourcing, and attachment-oriented approaches. 

What began as a modality for treating PTSD in soldiers is now a widely recognized therapy for symptoms of generalized anxiety, depression, phobias, addiction, avoidance, perfectionism, OCD, etc. Many presenting symptoms stem from traumatic or past childhood experiences: 

  • Childhood Neglect (even benign neglect)
  • Verbal, Physical, and Sexual Abuse
  • Growing up with a parent with chronic mental or physical illness
  • Childhood Bullying
  • LGBTQIA+ Stressors and Trauma (coming out, shifting identities, internalized societal devaluing, family rejection)
  • Medical Traumas (misdiagnoses, procedures, illness, moral injury by medical staff)
  • Racial & Ethnic Trauma (systemic racism, microaggressions) 
  • Immigration Experiences (1st & 2nd generation expectations, anti-immigration policies)
  • Intergenerational/Geopolitical Trauma (oppressive regimes, genocide, holocaust)

EMDR remains one of the most efficacious therapies for PTSD, single-incident traumas, and relational traumas, both present and past. Organizations such as the American Psychological Association, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the World Health Organization, United Kingdom Psychological Trauma Society, and many other international agencies acknowledge the effectiveness of EMDR. 

Anyone who can keep dual awareness, which is the ability to stay present in the here and now, while processing disturbing material from the past, is a candidate for AF-EMDR therapy. When someone has difficulty keeping dual awareness, a foundation must be built prior to EMDR processing, such as utilizing other types of therapeutic tools to begin creating therapist-client safety and trust, increasing capacity for self-regulation, as well as building an internal sense of trust and safety in the body. 

AF-EMDR rapidly processes information. Memories, thoughts, feelings, fantasy images, and body sensations move along an adaptive path and return the participant to a state of equilibrium, with new insights and integration. 

Attachment Focused-EMDR helps to reduce or eliminate the emotional charges attached to upsetting incidents and memories held in the mind-body. This process alleviates current symptoms, relieves distressing memories, resolves present and future triggers, builds resilience, and improves compassion towards oneself and one’s relationships with others. The theory and practice of Attachment-Focused EMDR is predicated on the principle that the ability and wisdom to heal resides within us all.

History-taking is an important part of this phase. The therapist takes a careful history to learn about individual, familial, medical, academic, work, social, relationship, and trauma experiences. Understanding the psychic landscape is an important first step, prior to any deep trauma work.

Clients develop sufficient coping strategies for managing overwhelming emotions, painful memories, and triggers (before, during, and after sessions). During this phase, clients are fully informed about AF-EMDR and how trauma manifests in the body, behaviors, and symptoms.

Together, we find a negative memory, image, belief, or bodily sensation associated with trauma or a disturbing experience (current or past). Often, current situations or fears link to prior events, whether remembered or outside awareness. With AF-EMDR, there is a way to find these root memories, experiences or representations (birth trauma or repeated experiences in childhood) even if the client does not initially know what in the past links the present.

While the client processes the most charged image of a traumatic/upsetting memory with feelings, body sensations, and core negative beliefs, the therapist or client uses bilateral tapping to move the material towards adaptive processing and integration. The therapist asks the individual to describe what is happening at particular moments when the processing slows or gets stuck. The processing resumes with the help of the therapist.

Through the processing, clients move through unresolved memories, feelings, body sensations, and negative beliefs. Authentic positive beliefs begin to emerge, as triggers and memories around the traumatic event fade and lighten. Sometimes, it is hard to remember the original scene that was targeted.

This phase involves pinpointing and reducing any residual physical discomfort that may still be connected to the disturbing memory.

The therapist closes the session by making sure the client is self-regulated and grounded. Clients are encouraged to document any relevant issues, dreams, or noticed changes that may arise between sessions.

We re-check the work and notice any shifts between sessions (changes in the nervous system, interactions, dreams, new targets). Any charges from the previous session are processed and re-checked in the following sessions.

Through this therapy, individuals gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their history. Symptoms are relieved, traumatic memories fade into the background, and greater capacities for boundary setting, relationships, and resiliency are developed. 

After 35+ years in practice, I know that one size does not fit all. Everyone brings a unique history, physiology, familial and developmental patterning, social, religious, and cultural heritages, as well as intergenerational history and trauma. I bring the sum total of my education, training, and work history into the room by taking a careful client history, paced according to what feels safe for the client. I collaborate with current and prior professionals, and I begin to construct a general treatment plan with my clients. 

In general, I bring an integrative and holistic approach to each session that combines AF-EMDR or elements of EMDR therapy, with somatic, developmental, and attachment-focused perspectives. 

AF-EMDR has advanced my practice, offering comprehensive and lasting improvements, by literally modifying neuropathways and altering how trauma, stressors, negative self-beliefs, and symptoms of loss and grief are held in the body. 

I am an EMDRIA and Parnell Institute Certified Therapist and Approved Consultant. I facilitate Parnell Institute trainings for licensed therapists, Parts I, II, and III, and I offer individual and group consultation to therapists learning AF-EMDR.