How Does EMDR Work?

November 1, 2019

 

An essential assumption in EMDR is that our minds, like our bodies, are geared towards health.  When you get a cut on your body, it will heal itself unless a blockage like dirt gets into it.  If you get the dirt out, the body will continue on its healing course.  There is a similar pattern in our minds.  When we experience disturbing or distressing things in our lives, our rational brain goes offline, and the older part of our brain takes over, to ensure our survival.  You may have heard of the fight/flight response- this is what the older part of our brain activates when we experience a threat to our safety and/or security.  When this happens, stress hormones are secreted, and our body is ready to fight, flight, or freeze.  Because of this activation process, our normal processing is blocked and these events are stored in their original, disturbing state, along with the sights, sounds, emotions, and bodily sensations, that were experienced at the time of the event.  This is why we can be “triggered” in our day to day lives when we are reminded of these earlier events- they were never fully processed, and stored efficiently in our brain, the way other memories were.  We pick up right where we left off, even though the actual threat has passed and we are no longer in danger.  EMDR then is a process in which we can clean out those old wounds, and allow the mind to continue on its natural processing and healing course.

 

When going through EMDR therapy, the portions of these earlier memories that are not finished filing in an organized and healthy manner, will be given a chance to become fully processed, so they are no longer stuck in the stressful state.  This is accomplished with the help of alternating bilateral stimulation, also known as BLS.  There are a number of ways to perform the BLS, including eye movements, tactile vibration, auditory sounds, and can even be self-administered with something called a butterfly hug- making a butterfly with your hands by hooking your thumbs together and alternating taps to each side of your collar bone.  There are some theories about why this back and forth, left and right, motion turns on a processing mechanism in our brains and bodies.  Dr. Shapiro and others, theorize that it may be replicating the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) process that we experience while sleeping.  That is the state in which we dream, during which our brain metabolizes the experiences from the day and stores those memories and learnings in our internal filing system for our future use.  During EMDR, clinicians facilitate the activation of this process within the safety of the therapy room to clear out the blockages, by allowing clients’ brains and bodies to process the original experience and store the memory in a more useful way.

 

After the processing happens, the original memory may have changed somewhat in the mind of the individual.  For example, the memory of the experience may take on new meaning, or have additional information that helps it settle into the system comfortably and efficiently.  The fearful or unpleasant emotions, the uncomfortable body sensations, and the negative and limiting conclusions that may have been adopted in the mind of the individual (such as “I am not important’, or “I cannot trust anyone”) may have disappeared.  In their place will be calmer, more relaxed body sensations, positive emotions such as relief, and positive thoughts such as “I am important” or “I can choose who to trust” may feel more accurate.  This is because EMDR facilitates the transformation of a traumatic memory into a historical fact, so that we can be informed by our memories rather than controlled by them.  Our innate internal system knows how to move old information to a healthier place, once memories are reprocessed in this way, most people describe ‘feeling lighter,’ ‘feeling more present,’ or ‘when recalling the event now, it seems farther away.’ We cannot change what has happened to us in the past, but EMDR offers us an opportunity to change how those events affect us now and in the future.

 

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