Can EMDR Treat Racial and Cultural Trauma?

racial trauma Mar 12, 2023

By Jamie Sedgwick, LCPC, NCC 

EMDRIA Approved Consultant

2020 was a year of challenges and changes. For many of us, our lives have been forever changed. One necessary challenge and change was an openness regarding the impact of systemic racism on our country. Understanding the impacts of systemic racism led me to consider how it has impacted the field of psychology, what changes need to be made and how EMDR can potentially be utilized to treat cultural and racial trauma. 

Systemic Racism and Psychotherapy

I have often felt that my Master’s program’s one course requirement in cultural competency did not do anything to make me culturally or racially competent as a therapist. If anything, I remember walking away from that course with an unsettled feeling. It was a textbook full of “facts” and “statistics” about races and cultures that did nothing to make me feel more prepared to be a culturally competent therapist. In reflection, that course feels like an example of how systemic racism has impacted the field of psychology. It is an assumption that we can understand others and their experiences based on numbers and studies. It reduced entire populations of people to numbers. Every human’s experience is different and cannot be summarized or understood based on statistics and studies. The only way to truly begin to understand another person is to create a space for them to teach us. This was a skill that I had already begun to develop thanks to my training as an EMDR therapist. It also made me curious how EMDR could be utilized to treat racial and cultural trauma.

Racial Trauma & Phase 2

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy is an evidence-based treatment modality for treating trauma. EMDR is a client-led, “bottom up” modality. This means we follow the client and trust the client’s brain and body to know what is needed for healing. As an EMDR therapist, I found myself being truly interested in each individual client’s experience. I got curious and invited conversations about the impact of race and culture on traumatic experiences. When asked, I found that most clients could identify traumatic experiences associated with their cultural or racial identity. I also learned that most clients would not bring up these experiences with a white therapist unless I invited those conversations into the therapy space.

This brings me to one of the most important considerations for Phase 2, the Preparation Phase, of EMDR. This phase is focused on building rapport, identifying traumatic memories and being sure the client is properly prepared for trauma work. In order to effectively use EMDR to treat racial and cultural trauma, as therapists, we have to invite conversations about race and culture into the therapy space. Not only does this help us to better understand our clients and their traumatic experiences, but it is an important part of building rapport and safety within the therapeutic relationship. We also need to consider how we may shift our work with Positive Resourcing (Resource Development Installation) to address the impacts of racial trauma and ensure that clients have the resources necessary to address any potential stuck points during reprocessing.

I have found several books helpful when considering how to utilize Phase 2 of EMDR to prepare clients to reprocess racial and cultural trauma during Phases 3-7. These resources include:

  1. Anti-Racist Psychotherapy: Confronting System Racism and Healing Racial Trauma by David Archer
  2. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
  3. Cultural Competence and Healing Culturally Based Trauma with EMDR Therapy by Mark Nickerson, LICSW

The first two resources are great for all therapists. In fact, put them on your TBR list right now. If you are an EMDR therapist, the third resource looks specifically at how to effectively utilize EMDR to treat cultural trauma. It has been extremely helpful in considering how to tailor Resource Development Installation to meet client needs prior to reprocessing racial and cultural trauma.

Racial Trauma & SUDs

Another major consideration for using EMDR to treat racial and cultural trauma is related to the SUDs (Subjective Units of Disturbance) scale utilized during Phase 4, the Desensitization Phase. Ideally, when using EMDR, a client would rate a memory at a SUDs of zero in order for the memory to be considered successfully desensitized and reprocessed. However, when targeting experiences of racial and cultural trauma, we often do not get the SUDs rating to a zero. The threat of experiencing racism and cultural discrimination in the future is still very real and makes it difficult for clients to be able to desensitize these experiences to a SUDs of 0. However, we can reduce the disturbance, or distress, related to past experiences and help strengthen positive resources for a client. Over time, this can lead to relief from trauma symptoms. 

Information about EMDR Training

I am immensely grateful for EMDR as an effective treatment modality for trauma and how it can be utilized to treat racial and cultural trauma. If you are considering getting trained in EMDR therapy, be sure the training you choose is EMDRIA approved. You can find EMDRIA approved trainings by going to Trauma Specialists Training Institute (TSTI) is an EMDRIA approved training provider that offers EMDR Basic Training, Advanced Training and ongoing consultation options. 

About the Author

Jamie Sedgwick, LCPC completed an EMDRIA Approved EMDR Basic Training in 2017. She credits this training with completely changing her therapy practice. Jamie is now an EMDR Consultant and Director of Training and Consultation at Trauma Specialist Training Institute. 

Sign up for our Basic Training today! 


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