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Leaning In: Overcoming the Anxiety of Getting Started with EMDR Therapy

Hope Payson shares with Envision why EMDR therapists can benefit from taking an EMDR refresher course.

You completed the training. The experience of the lecture and the mind-spinning process of practicing with your own brain and the brains of your newly created “therapists” and “clients" is behind you. As you head to your virtual or actual office with your training manual and handouts you may notice a twinge of anxiety as you get closer to using what you learned.

Welcome to your new condition—Intermittent Growth Edge Syndrome (IGES), which can be mild, moderate, or severe based on your temperament, the complexity of your clientele and the amount of support you have in place to implement EMDR into your practice. Fortunately, this is usually a short-lived issue with a cure.

Starting new things can be hard and learning EMDR therapy can nudge even the most seasoned clinicians to their growth edge. It can feel like sitting on top of an uncomfortable fence where you practice bilateral eye movement by gazing lovingly back at the way you used to do therapy, then fearfully towards your awkward future of finger waving.

And yet we persist, motivated by the encouragement of our trainers to “use it or lose it”—we begin. Yet, the easy-breezy “calm/safe place” we implemented in practicum does not go as smoothly with all of our clients. Our clients with complex trauma histories don’t drive with us on one straightforward “presenting problem” road, instead, we find ourselves on a superhighway of multiple intertwining issues dodging heavy life-stress traffic. And the client that inspired us to get trained to begin with, dissociates when we start processing her touchstone memory. As we persist on our journey, the background music in our mind becomes a bad country song without the bar, the lost dog or the partner who left us. Instead, we are regaled by a steady chorus that tells us we may be doing this all wrong.

This anxiety is completely, utterly, and humanly normal. We have entered a parallel process with our clients—we encourage them to lean in and focus on something that makes them feel super vulnerable, while we do the same. And here is where we will find some of our richest learning experiences. We stumble and make “mistakes” only to find that they open unexpected doors in our clinical work. When a “safe/calm place” does not work, we more deeply understand the impact of trauma and find new, more personalized, ways to help people switch states. And throughout our journey we find a road map to follow in Shapiro’s text and our training manual.

I dealt with IGES for the first 2 years of my EMDR journey but what I learned in the process has benefited me personally and professionally. Here are some of my hard-earned lessons.


We don’t need to be Perfect

Our clients want us and the therapy to succeed and they will be more than patient in the process. They will not be quoting what Francine Shapiro said about the “safe/calm place” process when things don’t go well. In fact, the mindful stance of getting the “safe/calm place” exactly right for them, can help them feel attended to in a way they never experienced before. And while we fine-tuned their ability to self soothe, we all started to breathe a little easier. EMDR Therapy is a forgiving process.

We do need to be Present

Being super curious, grounded and compassionate towards yourself and your clients can help to maintain the best atmosphere for learning and growing in this process. Ground and reground yourself before and while doing EMDR therapy when needed. Accept that anxiety may simply be a part of the process for everyone in your office.

Whose Reluctance is This?

I take insurance and therefore, most of my sessions have to be completed within a 50-60 minute window. To conserve our valuable time for trauma work, I have learned it is best to call the hesitancy out. To do so, I notice the LOR (Level of Reluctance—not a new protocol, just made that up) in the room and assess the source. Is this yours or your client’s? Or, is it both of you? If it is you, try to determine if this is clinical instinct or vulnerability anxiety. If it is your vulnerability, ground and lean into the work. If clinical instinct, it might help to check in with your consultant or the client. I start most sessions by saying something like “we have talked about doing EMDR this session (or we were doing EMDR last session) is it okay to continue?”. While we are always doing EMDR whether we are reprocessing a memory or not, most clients think of EMDR as the sessions with eye movements. Then, the client can discuss their reluctance. It is the nature of PTSD to want to avoid focusing on trauma and most clients can work through this. Yet, there are also timing issues and real-life stressors that might mean postponing the reprocessing work. So, anticipate some anxiety, call it out and sort out how to proceed based on what you have learned.

Watch Out for EMDR Drift

Scene change—so, you are out of the car with the bad country music and out on the water now. Like the steady pull of the tide, there is a tendency to drift from what you were taught in your training to accommodate your anxiety and perhaps to cushion that uncomfortable fence you are sitting on. But try to resist this—EMDR therapy works best when you follow the researched steps (unless, you must modify this for clinical reasons, but that is a topic for another blog). Your training manual and Shapiro’s text are your compasses, study them to chart your best course.

Don’t go it Alone

I relied upon a number of life rafts and lifesavers to keep me afloat in the first few years after my basic training. There are amazing consultants and Consultants-in-Training who offer individual and group sessions to facilitate your learning. Podcasts, books, and advanced training can encourage and inspire you. Lastly, consider refreshing your skills by auditing or attending the basic training again. As a basic training facilitator, I have learned so much by attending and listening to the training again. I found it easier to absorb the information after knowing it and practicing it a bit. And you can create your own learning pod with fellow trainees or local EMDR therapists to share resources and offer each other peer support. Learning is more fun and much less perilous when you have someone out there with you.

Enjoy the Ride

There will be thrilling waves, unexpected currents, and joyful floating moments as you integrate EMDR therapy into your clinical practice. Healing is like that and witnessing it can be an unpredictable, yet beautiful, experience. Mastering the art of EMDR Therapy is a long-term educational experience, the more you practice, the more you learn. Enjoy the skills you have now and look to the horizon to discover more without fear…okay, maybe with some anxiety as, for many of us, it simply may be part of the ride.


Did you know Envision is offering a basic EMDR refresher?

Audit your basic EMDR training & boost your confidence

Choose Envision Academy because it's innovative.

No other basic EMDR refresher offers this kind of in-depth learning

  • 7 days of live training - 100% Online Virtual Training

  • The Envision Academy program exceeds EMDRIA Requirements

  • Bonus - 30 + hours of home study courses focused on EMDR techniques/ specialization

  • Specialized world-renowned guest speakers with in-depth Q & A

Discover more by clicking here or visiting our website

Want to sign up for more live online workshops? Click here to see what Envision Workshops has coming up.


Hope Payson, LCSW, LADC is a licensed Clinical Social Worker, Alcohol and Drug Counselor and an EMDRIA Approved Consultant who specializes in the treatment of addiction and complex trauma. She has over 30 years of experience working in community mental health in a variety of capacities and was the Clinical Director for EMDR HAP for seven years.

She currently coordinates a group private practice in Winsted, Ct. and also provides training on trauma, addiction and recovery internationally. Hope is the co-producer of the film “Uprooting Addiction: Healing From the Ground Up” a documentary that explores the connection between trauma, neglect and vulnerability to addictive disorders.


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