What is EMDR?

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EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is an evidence-based form of psychotherapy that uses eye movements to reduce the physical and emotional pain of traumatic memories. EMDR was developed by Francine Shapiro, who noticed that her eyes naturally moved back and forth when she thought about a painful memory.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is anything that overwhelms our ability to cope and causes lasting disruption to the nervous system. In some cases, trauma can develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (click here to read the diagnostic criteria for PTSD). This can happen months or even years after the traumatic situation occurred. Trauma is not exclusive to combat or other violent conflicts. Many people experience the effects of trauma from neglectful childhoods, major illnesses, unexpected losses, having been bullied, or any other profoundly disturbing situation. You do not need to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD to experience effects of trauma or to benefit from EMDR.

What are Common Effects of Trauma?

Some experiences can’t be processed because they were too threatening or disturbing. When this occurs, our body doesn’t complete its natural stress responses and we get stuck experiencing the threat as if it were still happening. We can find ourselves swinging back and forth between a fight or flight response (feeling angry, afraid, irritable, impulsive, jumpy, hyper-alert) and feeling shut down, numb or disconnected from our surroundings and other people. If we didn’t receive social support, or if the trauma involved betrayal or victimization, then we can become more susceptible to developing these symptoms.

Trauma also causes problems with memory. During periods of intense stress, some regions of the brain that encode narrative memory can turn off while other regions that encode sensory or emotional memories remain active. This is why someone who’s gone through trauma might have disturbing emotional responses to sensory cues without knowing why.

Trauma can cause persistent beliefs that the world is unsafe, we are powerless, unlovable or unworthy, or that people—including ourselves and our own feelings—can’t be trusted.

How Does EMDR Help?

The first goal of EMDR is to develop and enhance positive internal resources (such as happy memories or images that invoke a sense of peace or stability). We all have state-dependent memory, which basically means we tend to have worse memories when we feel bad. As you can guess, this becomes a vicious cycle: we feel bad, so we remember bad things happening and feel even worse. When there’s been trauma and we’re reminded of it, we might start to believe the emotional memory (for example, shame or self-blame) instead of our rational thoughts. Developing internal positive resources helps us switch our mental and emotional state to deal with stress. We can also learn to identify when our nervous system has been activated and in what ways, which allows us to organize and navigate chaotic and overwhelming feelings so they don’t take over.

During the next stages of EMDR we distill the core negative belief and emotion produced by the trauma and identify what memories we want to work on. The objective of EMDR is to reconsolidate these memories. Reconsolidating a memory involves putting it in context with other life experiences and creating new associations.

Once we can effectively manage high levels of stress and draw on positive resources, eye-movements are used to help desensitize us to the most painful aspect of a memory. This involves some exposure to the traumatic memory, checking in with how our bodies respond to it, and drawing on positive resources when they’re needed. It’s like twisting the cap on a shaken soda bottle, but not so much that the bottle explodes. This goes on until the memory no longer causes debilitating emotional or physical reactions. After this stage of therapy, people often say they have less nightmares or can think about something they used to avoid; they feel sad but not overwhelmed by it.  

Next, we let our mind roam freely so that other memories linked up with a disturbing base feeling or belief can be transformed as well. The eye movements seem to activate networks of associated memories and loosen other structures in the brain to allow new associations to form. Many people have sudden insight or gain new perspectives during this stage of EMDR, or they access feelings and memories that have been suppressed for a long time. This provides an opportunity to work through and transform these memories in a safe place. One of the final stages of EMDR is to install a new positive belief until it feels true.

Why Does EMDR Work?

Nobody really knows why EMDR works. Some scientists believe EMDR mimics the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep, theorized to be our brain’s way of consolidating memories and letting go of what it doesn’t need to store. EMDR seems to loosen up rutted beliefs, helping our brains make new connections. EMDR also seems to activate memories while providing a bit of a soothing distraction through them.

 

Healing Happens Through Relationship, Including the One You Have With Yourself

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People need each other, there’s no way around that. Betrayal, shame and isolation are some of the most painful feelings we can experience. To see an example of how an infant is affected when her mother won’t respond to her, click here. This study shows how we need to feel seen and heard as we’re developing our sense of self, safety and belonging in the world. 

Our nervous systems are designed for social engagement. We feel more relaxed around people who know and understand us, and we need to feel safe in order to make these connections. When we don’t receive support during times of overwhelming stress, our bodies kick into fight or flight mode, or we freeze up. This can cause prolonged anxiety and numbness (imagine how this affects a child who’s scared of a person they depend on for love).

When we’ve been hurt, it can be hard to trust others or want to be vulnerable again. We might avoid deep personal relationships that could trigger more painful feelings. When our needs for acceptance and belonging have gone unmet, we might focus too much on pleasing others. We might compromise our needs, seeking distractions instead. We might think we have to control or manipulate others to get our needs met. 

The existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom says, “Healing happens through relationship.” We need relationships where we can be our vulnerable, messy selves.

Healing also happens through strengthening the relationships that exist within ourselves—between our mind (logic, narrative memories, beliefs) and body (physical sensations, unconscious or sensory memories, feeling). When these parts of ourselves aren’t working in a unified way, it becomes hard to know what’s best for us. 

UCLA psychiatrist Dan Siegel came up with a field of study called interpersonal neurobiology, which describes a process of enabling higher functions of the brain such as insight, empathy, and intuition. His research suggests that the more “integrated” we are, the better able we are to empathize with others, while remaining our individuated selves. For me personally, I’ll experience warm chills throughout my body when a thought resonates with an internal sense of what’s right for me. 

To strengthen these connections within ourselves, we can start by paying attention to sensations happening in our bodies, without judgement. For example, often grief accompanies chest tightness. We feel as if our heart has literally broken as our bodies release stress hormones. There might be stomach tension or other pain and discomfort.

We might feel sadness, guilt or anger. When these feelings come up, they can seem like a part of us that has always been there and might never go away. However, we can ride all feelings out, just as we always have before. Feelings don’t define us. They always pass. They are often a testament to how much we value something or someone we’ve lost.

Every situation—even grief over a loss—presents a new opportunity to get clear about the kind of love we want, a chance to ask for what we need from the people in our lives who embody these qualities, step away from the people who don’t, and take good care of ourselves. 

We can also begin to take an honest inventory of all those split-off parts of ourselves that need attention because they once seemed not good enough, unacceptable, or even scary, then find a healthy way of acknowledging and expressing all of those parts.

Going through these difficult feelings deepens our understanding of what it means to be human. Acknowledging and tending to our pain doesn’t make us victims, or a burden. In fact, it empowers us to take better care of ourselves, which also helps us to become more open and available to others.