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.