IFS informed EMDR explained

Jan 02, 2024

The integration of Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy with Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a truly compassionate and loving therapy, very popular in the NHS and across the world.

With this simple integrated approach, you will learn to love all parts of yourself, even troubling protector parts like panic and social anxiety; and parts of you that you avoid relating to authentically like shame; and then you can begin to melt away any history of 'trauma' or negative adverse events.

 Let me show you with an example; with a pervasive issue such as having intrusive thoughts or 'OCD'. Let's explore how being truly understood - using these IFS informed EMDR ideas -  can emotionally resolve a psychological issue, with a case vignette involving 'Jenny'.

Jenny, 40, has been grappling with intrusive thoughts for 30 years, related to a traumatic experience of bullying in her childhood. She was often hit over the head by 'friends' laughed at, and teachers turned a blind eye and mum didn't really listen. Accordingly Jenny's thoughts are persistent, disruptive, and she has emotional flashbacks akin to PTSD.

Historically, post-traumtic stress disorder was spotted with army vets coming back from war zones, it was called shell shock. What helped was bilateral stimulation and reprocessing of traumatic memories. But the EMDR chiefs worked out that lots of troubled people had similar issues. It is obvious really. 'Symptoms' are alarms prodding you to 'watch out!' And they can get very very busy.

This scenario of busy alarm parts is such a common experience for so many people. The IFS people also realised that behind the alarm system are forgotten or 'exiled' parts. For example shame, fears of abandonment, somatising parts that embed emotional problems deep into the body. Much of the deeper stuff is evidence of poor experiences in childhood. Parts' therapy often needs a boost of EMDR due to the intense suffering of your inner child. That's why IFS began to integrate EMDR creating a dynamic repairing and healing synergy.

For Jenny, her experience and back story is a common trauma theme. Her intrusive thoughts (thinking protector parts) tend to regularly intrude arbitrarily on her mind; the flashbacks cause endless distress; and her nervous system always anticipates it happening again.


At the start of her sessions we focus on  'stabilisation', which is a gentle and compassionate way of encouraging Jenny's nervous system to feel relaxed. Often past 'trauma' disturbs the nervous system and Jenny found herself, repeatedly, in fight v flight or 'freeze' mode.

Talking doesn't really reset the system. So we focused using tapping and meditation techniques and 'resourcing' (using nurturing, protective and wise figures) to establish safety. This is important as we move from surviving to thriving. We began to settle her physiology down.


Indeed she hadn't really noticed that she was getting triggered by stressy situations at work and also from tension with her controlling partner. So the 'old friends' of agitation and panic, kept rearing up in her mind and making her tearful and fearful of the future. This also affected her self of confidence and self esteem. Jenny's present life had become quite a tortuous conundrum. 

But once Jenny settled into therapy, her nervous system calmed down we began to explore triggers and how they related to past memories. Sometimes memories of abuse or neglect are well-known but in Jenny's case she couldn't remember. Her 'parts' were nervous, untrusting of me,  and 'busy' at the beginning. We had some difficulties getting things going. She was quite 'defended'. 

The clever aspect of IFS is we can begin to talk to the 'front end' busy parts of her (her worry) and begin to form a dialogue and relationship with these busy 'protector' parts. These parts are often very happy to begin to talk about the burdens they carry; and these parts know where the root memory lies.

Moreover we located the wounded parts actually in her body, where the nervous system has been dysregulated. Her head was flopping forward;  and she had jaw pain due to some unconscious clenching of her jaw... maybe a bit of anger there...


 From these beginnings we can use IFS to connect with these busy somatic parts and befriend and dialogue with these parts with compassion. Further we can ask Jenny to 'bridge back' to her childhood or other significant periods in her life - to the root traumatic memory - and we can use EMDR to desensitise and process the traumatic residue of the past that still resides in her nervous system. 

For Jenny, this was about the teenage bullying. Having her head hit, being mocked and humiliated, and shamed. She felt she had no resource to look to authority figures to help her. Her mother wasn't listening. It was going on for months. She became panicky about going to school. 

Some of Jenny's parts were holding a lot of traumatic emotional pain, and were eventually 'exiled' and became forgotten parts of herself. As an adult she forgot about what happened but her nervous system did not.


 So as part of her therapy journey, we reconnected and established a loving, compassionate relationship with her inner child. And we invited her inner child to feel safe and loved. This is a major part of any therapy: reconnecting with your authentic self. Inside her was a little girl who felt lost abandoned and untrusting; she barely knew the adult Jenny. We reconnected lost souls. 

Through connecting with various parts of herself, Jenny has an opportunity to establish a warm, compassionate befriending attitude to self. There are 'no bad parts' of Jenny. The busy intrusive parts were only trying to keep her safe. Therefore IFS is about releasing burdens of the past and making good how she feels about herself.


During the process of getting to know her self, I use EMDR to desensitise emotional trauma, the bullying incidents were revisited and explosed for what they were: bullying. Any blame or negative self-worth was processed away and a new understanding was established. She was a wonderful resourceful young girl dealing with a situation where adult help should have helped her. 


The integration of IFS with EMDR allows Jenny to process away the negativity and burden and anger surrounding the origins of the 'front end' or daily adult intrusive thoughts. Jenny can form a more loving relationship to the parts of her that were wounded by the bullying. We can process out any painful emotional trauma associated with any incidents. We can connect with her parts and with EMDR process somatically by processing, with tapping, inviting her to feel safe and secure again. 

In the case of Jenny, the IFS-informed EMDR approach provides a holistic and tailored method for addressing intrusive thoughts. By recognizing and engaging with the protective and wounded parts within the internal system, and by using EMDR for reprocessing, this integrated therapy gives Jenny a coherent understanding of past trauma and how it impacts on present day mental intrusive thoughts. 


Through this therapeutic journey, Jenny not only gains more control of her thoughts (as they are only parts of her nervous system working as a warning signal). She knows that her OCD over the bullying was the result of trauma (now processed) and that intrusive thoughts are the way the nervous system tries to constantly keep her safe.

The 'symptoms' were her friends and IFS is the realisation that any wounded busy part - anxiety, fear, panic - is the way the body is speaking to us. We can speak back and make friends with these busy parts while also sinking back in Jenny's childhood and making good any traumatic memories.