EDMR: Utility In Law Enforcement Stress and Trauma

February 12, 2019


We have all likely heard the saying, “some things you just cannot unsee,” and based on our work with law enforcement officers who have been exposed to horrific scenes and critical incidents; it is safe to say that especially rings true for this population. “Mental toughness” is one of the most important, but often times the most overlooked, part of policing. Reaction times need to be sharp and gears shifted quickly. When an officer has experienced a one-time traumatic event, or if he or she has a lifetime of traumatic memories, some individuals can suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; nightmares, flashbacks, cognitive errors and other negative manifestations. Much like a file cabinet, our brain is the file cabinet for our memories. When a document is incorrectly filed at work, it can create havoc when attempting to locate it. And sometimes, when a traumatic memory is incorrectly filed in our brains, that memory becomes frozen or stuck in the brain – which is an entirely different type of havoc if this memory is triggered by reminders.


When memories are incorrectly filed in our brains, they can create an array of interpersonal and psychological problems in an individual’s life. When these memories are activated, even in unconscious process, the long lasting negative effects can interfere with the way a person interprets the world and the people around them. Most of us can close our eyes and visualize a colleague or fellow officer who has been impacted by the traumatic scenes they have encountered. Effective coping mechanisms to deal with interpersonal stressors, our environments and change are no longer effective. This has a negative effect on personal and professional productivity and deeply impacts an individual’s sense of self. When a person is negatively impacted by their trauma history, a number of symptoms may emerge:

  • Intrusive Thoughts: Flashbacks, upsetting nightmares or recurrent distressing memories.
  • Avoidance: Staying away physically from the location of the traumatic event or refusing to talk about it.
  • Negative Changes: Developing a sense of hopelessness about the future, adopting a more negative outlook, spotty memories, feelings of detachment or a lack of engagement with people and activities previously enjoyed.
  • Emotional Reactions: Being easily startled, increased hyper-vigilance, self-destructive behaviors, impacted sleep patterns, inability to concentrate, overwhelming guilt, and/or increased irritability.

When these symptoms arise, an individual is considered to be at higher risk for ending their career prematurely, suicidal thoughts and increased mental health conditions.


Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) emerged as a treatment modality over 30 years ago and is now accepted as a treatment of choice by numerous mental health departments and trauma organizations. No one can explain exactly how any form of therapy works, especially from a neurobiological perspective. However, EMDR can be described as targeting unprocessed (or incorrectly filed) memories that trigger negative emotions, sensations or beliefs, and allowing the brain another opportunity to “digest” and reorganize them into the correct file folder within your brain. EMDR has been extensively researched and proven effective for the treatment of trauma.


EMDR can seem both mysterious and intimidating, so let’s take a minute to clarify what it looks like.


It is important that before some of the challenging work of EMDR can be addressed, you and your clinician must have a positive relationship. It can often take a couple of sessions to determine if your therapist will be a good fit for you and for them to garner a realistic expectation of how EMDR may help you.


Being able to connect to positive emotions is very important, both in day-to-day life and for EMDR. If coping with your emotions or feeling stable on a daily basis is a challenge for you, your therapist will work with you to increase your ability to cope and feel stable before proceeding with EMDR processing. Other items addressed in this stage should include identifying who will be your support network through this process.


You and your therapist will trace back to a memory that is connected to the issue you want to resolve. For instance, if you are having panic and anxiety issues, the therapist will guide you in thinking back to the earliest time you felt that intense anxiety.

Once it has been determined what issue to work on first, the therapist will help you to call up the target memory. This will sometimes involve bringing up the memory in detail, using descriptions from the five senses.

The therapist will help you to identify:

  • what emotions and body sensations it elicits;
  • how upsetting it is to you on a scale of 0 to 10; and
  • any negative belief about yourself that is attached to it.


During this step you will experience bilateral stimulation, which will always involve a practice that alternates between the left and right side of your body. It may be tapping, following finger movement, buzzers and earphones. During this active process you let your mind wander, and your brain will start moving and firing the neural pathways that are associated with the memory you are targeting. Your job is simple, go wherever your thoughts lead you. By stimulating both the right and left side of the brain EMDR allows your brain to process information in a way that is similar to what is achieved in a REM sleep cycle. By allowing your brain the opportunity to make creative connections and by not judging or trying to control your thoughts, you allow your brain the opportunity to digest the targeted negative experience in a way it was unable to do the first time it was experienced.


EMDR processing continues until the distress around the issue reduces to a self-reported 0/10. The number of sessions this may take depends on each individual person and their unique memories. It is quite common to see an issue initially rated as a 10/10 be reduced to a 0/10 in a few sessions. Other times, it may take longer. Remember, what is essentially being done in this process is rewriting neural pathways.


Once the upset is down to a 0, the therapist will ask what you now believe about yourself as it relates to the original issue. These could include beliefs such as, “I did my best” or “I have sound judgment.” The therapist will do some sets of bilateral stimulation with you until that belief feels as strong as it can be. Where there used to be distress and a negative belief, there will now be a positive belief about yourself and your abilities.


Once the positive belief is as strong as it can be, the therapist will ask you to check your body for any remaining tension. Sometimes your body can continue to hold onto negativity after your mind has released it. The therapist will do sets of bilateral stimulation with you until your body feels clear of tension.


While this information may seem mysterious, hokey or unrealistic to some of us, there has been an emerging trend that we have observed around several departments in Michigan. When EMDR works for officers, they are willing to talk about it! It is becoming a regular occurrence for an officer to, in an unsolicited fashion, begin telling a group of fellow officers how significantly their life has improved since pursuing wellness by EMDR. In a field that has been shrouded by “mental toughness,” this willingness to share is remarkable to witness. As we continue to head down a path of increased acceptance toward emotional wellbeing and overall health and wellness, EMDR certainly has a role in the lives, livelihood and sustained resilience of our officers.

This article was written by Sara Eklove, LMSW, SAP and Steve Darling, LPC and originally is published in the Official Publication of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police Winter 2019.

Sara Eklove, LMSW, SAP is the CEO of ENCOMPASS, a subsidiary of AllOne Health and leads the Backing the Badge Local Law Enforcement Support Team. Sara received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Western Michigan University and has over fifteen years of experience in a variety of social work settings. Sara has developed and delivered initiatives designed to provide specific support to law enforcement customers. Sara is also a Substance Abuse Professional.

Steve Darling, LPC retired from the Michigan State Police in 2013. He worked at several locations throughout the State of Michigan in different capacities including 8 years with Behavioral Science as a law enforcement counselor. After retirement, Steve was hired as a consultant to assist in re-organizing a security department for a large healthcare corporation. Steve’s passion for working with police officers and their families drew him back to the counseling profession. Steve holds a Master of Arts Degree in Counseling from Western Michigan University. Steve is also a certified EMDR clinician and provides 1:1 support for Backing the Badge clients.