EMDR & trauma therapy

We’re very pleased to have so many of our clinicians trained in EMDR, including Madeleine, Megan and me, as well as a dedicated EMDR therapist in Nina. However EMDR is still a relatively new treatment modality, and can sound more like science-fiction than an evidence-based trauma therapy, so Nina and I put together this article to explain a little about EMDR and how it can help keep the past in the past. 

Danielle Graber
Clinical Psychologist & Director

EMDR – leaving the past in the past …..

A woman, let’s call her Nancy, comes to a counselling session because whenever her partner or boss becomes irritated with her, she gets overly upset.   Nancy has a memory of being age 10, when her alcoholic step-father poked her with his finger whenever he criticised her. Now, when Nancy feels criticised, it’s almost like she is that helpless 10-year old again. Sometimes it’s like she even feels her step-father’s finger poking at her shoulder.

This is just one example of how trauma from an earlier adverse experience can impact on us in the here and now. When a past trauma is triggered by a current event, our adult brain shuts down and we can start to think and feel like the trauma is happening all over again. Any event that overwhelms our ability to cope can create a trauma reaction that stays with us into adulthood. Some of the adverse events that can lead to a trauma reaction include; neglect, abandonment, death of a parent, divorce, family violence, sexual abuse, serious medical illness, disability, war, natural disasters like fires or floods, violence, serious accidents or injury.

We may wonder why do I startle every time I hear a loud noise, a rustle in the bushes, a certain piece of music or even a smell? This is the trauma brain at work, constantly on the lookout for further trauma. It is quite separate from our wise and adaptive adult responses. Calming the trauma response and strengthening the adult ‘wise’ mind is where counselling, in particular EMDR and other trauma therapies can help.

Eye Movement, Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, was designed to disconnect the painful, emotional responses in the present from those past memories and traumas. It was first discovered in the late 1980s by Dr Francine Shapiro, an American psychologist, who serendipitously discovered EMDR during her famous “walk in the woods”, where she noticed that upsetting thoughts and feelings lessened when she sporadically moved her eyes from side to side. One of my colleagues and mentors in the United States jokes in his training workshops that the more likely version of the story is that Shapiro really discovered EMDR when she was in a Macy’s (equivalent to Myer or David Jones in Australia) car park looking frantically from side to side to find her car!

When a trauma or overwhelming adverse event occurs, it seems to get locked in the nervous system with the original picture, sounds, thoughts and feelings and this is why it can be retriggered in the present. The eye movements used in EMDR seem to unlock the nervous system and allow the mind and body to let go of the experience. Perhaps similar to the processing that occurs during REM (or Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.

human brain

For a lot of people who have experienced significant trauma though, the idea of actually consciously recalling the traumatic event can be utterly overwhelming in and of itself. What if someone doesn’t want to recall the memory or associated feelings, images or body sensations? That’s when the Flash Technique, developed in mid-2016 by Dr Philip Manfield, becomes important. The Flash Technique is used to help reduce the disturbance associated with painful memories without having to consciously recall the memory or re-experiencing the pain or distress associated with the trauma. This technique can be used as a preparation tool for EMDR or on its own.  

While we don’t know the precise mechanism behind how EMDR works, the evidence is well and truly in that it does indeed work and work well.

In Nancy’s case, after a course of EMDR treatment, she described the past memories as more ‘distant’, and she could recall those memories without feeling small, belittled or defenceless. This improved her ability to assert herself and her needs and respond in the moment to criticisms without feeling overwhelmed emotionally or any unpleasant physical sensations (like that finger poking at her).

I for one feel very privileged to be involved in some of the amazing innovations that have made this possible and to be able to help clients unlock themselves from memories and traumas that have often haunted them for decades.

By Nina Zadurian
Psychologist and EMDR Therapist

What’s love got to do with it?

Another year, another season of Married at First Sight and another group of people in desperate need of some real therapy throw their emotional lives under a bus for their 15-minutes of Instagram fame. Call me a cynic and a killjoy, but it’s just so frustrating to watch these people, some of whom seem to have real emotional problems and mental health issues get toyed with for entertainment.

Of course you have to call me a hypocrite too, because I still watch it! But this year more than ever, it’s lost some of it’s guilty pleasure for me. Especially because it must make people wonder just what psychology is good for when so called ‘experts’ pair people up that would be lucky to survive a long elevator ride together, let alone a ‘marriage’. 

So I’ve asked our child & family counsellor, Penny, to put some of her thoughts together on the ‘experiment’ that is Married at First Sight.

Danielle Graber


beautiful-blur-bridal-256737Well aside from the obvious questionable production choices (such as shamelessly sensationalising someone’s virginal status), there has been something else playing on my mind this season.

Almost all of the participants view marriage as the panacea to their life’s problems.

There’s no doubt in my mind that reality television purposefully uses “sob stories” complete with background orchestral strings in an attempt to tug at my heartstrings. The problem with MAFS, however, is that it touts an expert panel of mental health professionals at the helm. They are highly trained individuals who have an ethical duty to provide services that benefit, not harm. These psychologists, and their data (always with the data), sit down with the participants to discuss what has impeded their ability to have a successful relationship. They highlight their vulnerabilities, nod knowingly, and assure them that this experiment is the right fit for them.  Despite hearing details about issues of trust, abandonment, childhood trauma or loss, they agree that it would be an excellent idea to proceed with the experiment and pair them up with a life partner who now has the task of fixing their new husband or wife’s problems.

Here’s a perfect example from a recent episode (before things got really intense between these two):

Following 28-year-old Ines crying to the experts about the loss of her childhood due to war and trauma, she says that she is guarded and pushes people away.


She hopes that “this guy” (remember, a complete stranger!) will be the one to make her feel safe enough to be vulnerable and create happy memories that she never got.


One of the “experts” says that Ines wears a mask to cover the pain for a troubled upbringing.


The other expert responds, “Ines wants love but she wants someone who won’t be scared off before they see the real Ines.”


The apparent solution? Pair her with Bronson who is “calm, fun and strong” and who has also experienced significant grief and loss. Luckily, “he’s still so easy going” and his light-hearted nature will help break down Ines’ walls.


Yes, they may find common ground in their experiences but this is not the solution to unresolved trauma. What they’re essentially saying is, “If she can learn to trust him, this will be successful” and “It’s up to Bronson to fix Ines’ childhood trauma and resulting defences”.


And we all know just how well that turned out for both of them so far! 3 weeks later there’s been nothing but; verbal abuse, complete contempt and emotional infidelity.

I have to believe that given their training and skills, the MAFS experts would be acutely aware of why some of the participants have had difficulty committing to a serious relationship. I also have to remember that this is television and producers will do anything to boost ratings. In the real world, us “experts” would be encouraging these prospective brides and grooms to look inwards (through therapy, self-reflection, or organic supports) instead of seeking an external person to fix their issues.

Aside from my professional perspective on this, I am recently married following seven years of courtship with my now husband. I have learnt a lot about myself, been to therapy, identified my vulnerabilities, had support from my partner to work through them, and dedicated considerable effort to grow and develop as an individual. I cannot imagine going into a blind marriage with the “baggage” I carried throughout my twenties. It would have been completely unrealistic and unfair on a complete stranger to provide the validation I needed when therapy was absolutely necessary (and boy, did it work wonders).

Let’s just remember that MAFS is a bonkers experiment. There have been 33 ‘relationships’ and only one has succeeded beyond the show. I hope this season is different (sucker for love over here!) but it raises so many questions about what people are seeking through marriage.

What I do know is that it’s more than just having the right person plonked down in front of you. These guys could have been matched with their true soul-mates (if you believe in such things), but if they are not in a place to see it, accept it and work at it, there’s no amount of tropical honeymoons and Gold Coast getaways that are going to turn it into anything real.

By Penny Gibson
Child & Family Counsellor




When a Uno game is more than just Uno game.



“How is it therapy when all you do is play games with them?”

Ah, this question. I’m not going to lie, I get it a lot. It’s okay, though, because I can answer it confidently and I can fully appreciate where a parent is coming from when they ask it. They are investing time, money, and energy into the process and I can only imagine that it seems like a very expensive game of Monopoly if they think that’s all their child does during our hour together!

However, I utilise Play Therapy in my sessions for a number of reasons.

First of all, using play creates a positive learning environment. This is important because the evidence shows that a child’s brain needs to be in a particular state for learning to occur. If a child is stressed, uncomfortable, or threatened with their therapist, their brain will be spending WAY more time finding ways to escape/avoid/lash out as a means of survival. I would rather spend time playing so that my client can pay attention to what I have to say as well have the brain capacity to think, share and process.

Secondly, children’s brains are hardwired to learn by doing, not talking. Play provides a crucial opportunity for a child to learn about themselves and about life lessons that can otherwise seem very arbitrary. For example, parents are always asking me how to teach their child empathy. It’s an incredibly vague and abstract concept for a child to grasp, so one of the best ways for a child to develop empathic tendencies is through play! This could include identifying someone who is disappointed when they lose, praising someone when they play well, or including someone who is being left-out.


Thirdly, it’s an important platform for teaching explicit social skills. Some children Fotor_149551454718446struggle to initiate play or do not know what to say or how to behave when playing with their peers. As their therapist, I can role model techniques and strategies for them to try out in their own world (and also highlight when maybe they are saying or doing things that aren’t so helpful!).

Let me offer some examples of how some games are helpful therapeutically:


  • Teaches responsibility such as through; handling money or in following complex rules;
  • Promotes delayed gratification as it isn’t a game that can be won quickly; and
  • Allows for disappointment when other players collect more properties or money than them.


  • Deals with the influence of luck and relinquishing control;
  • Needs player to cope with frustration if turn is skipped or reversed or when given a +2 or +4; and
  • Builds confidence as it can be won without significant skill.


  • Requires patience as there is no winning along the way, just one winner at the end;
  • Discourages comparison, such as to other people’s boards or progress; and
  • Encourages player to focus their attention in finding items on their board.


  • Promotes skill development in problem solving and strategy; and
  • Requires clear communication and trust in other game players.

Pop-up Pirate:  

  • Addresses issues with anticipation or heightened arousal;
  • Provides opportunity to practice frustration tolerance; and
  • Allows for brief and passing moments of fear to feel less intense.

Ultimately, the very act of play, in a safe space and within a trusting relationship connects and refines important neural pathways. This is the crux of therapy as we are trying to strengthen connections in the brain that help the client to thrive and weaken connections that are less helpful.  Play is rewarding and fulfilling so when I use it as a counsellor, I am confident that children are building positive connections to therapy and will more likely explore overwhelming thoughts and feelings with me, or even feel confident to problem-solve on their own.

So, in answer to the question, how is play NOT therapy?

By Penny Gibson
Child & Family Counsellor