EMDR Therapy: What is it and How Does it Work?
Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Over the years, EMDR has become increasingly popular as a treatment modality in therapy, but those outside the mental health field can have a hard time understanding how it works. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and, simply put, it's a way for people to process trauma using bilateral stimulation. It accesses the body and the trauma center of the brain.
You might have a lot of questions regarding the above paragraph, so let's dive in to how EMDR works and how it can benefit you.
The Brain & Trauma
We're about to geek out, so get ready.
The amygdala in our brain, who we're going to call Amy for fun, works like a storage container in our brains. She remembers things. But what's interesting about Amy is that she doesn't remember vivid memories; she remembers body sensations, emotional experiences, and triggers. Everyone's amygdala is fully formed at birth.
Think of Amy like the body's body guard. Whenever Amy is triggered by something,, she pulls the fire alarm to warn us that we're in danger (fight, flight, or freeze mode), and she does this because she stores body sensations, emotional experiences, and triggers. I'm sure we all can recall a time where we were in fight or flight mode and we had no idea why. That's Amy reminding us that we've experienced this emotion, body sensation, or trigger before and the last time it happened, we were in danger! A basic need in life for every human is to feel safe. If we don't feel safe, we become hyperaroused, which causes our nervous system to become dysregulated. People who consistently do not feel safe are always hyperaroused, which means their nervous system is continuously dysregulated.
There are two sides to the brain: the right side and left side. The right side of the brain consists of nonverbal communication, primary emotions, physiological regulation, and implicit memory (trauma storage). The left side of the brain is how we conduct logical thinking, language, and where our social emotions exist (pride, remorse, guilt, etc). Our left and right brain communicate to each other through a bridge right between them called the corpus callosum. When we experience trauma, our right brain and left brain are unable to communicate effectively to each other, which causes Amy to continuously pull the fire alarm even when we're not in real danger.
So, how do we get the left brain and right brain to start communicating again?
Through a little thing we call bilateral stimulation.
EMDR & Bilateral Stimulation
This is where things get wild.
Through countless studies and research, we've come to find that bilateral stimulation connects the right brain and the left brain, allowing them to start communicating effectively again. Bilateral stimulation can be done through a butterfly hug while you're tapping the opposite side of your shoulders, tapping your knees, tapping your feet, listening to music that goes from your left ear to your right ear, holding buzzers that buzz from left to right, or by following your therapist's finger from left to right. This is done while you're mentally reprocessing the trauma, creating a way for the memory to clear and you to be healed. This doesn't mean you won't remember what you happened to you; what it means is that you'll still remember the trauma, but you'll no longer feel flooded.
And remember Amy? It means she'll no longer be pulling that fire alarm when she doesn't need to. Can you imagine living in a world where you don't feel triggered all the time? How freeing would that be? How would that change your life?
From a study where EMDR was used as the treatment modality,, people who had a PTSD diagnosis no longer met the criteria. Countless people have experienced immense healing from their trauma through this treatment modality. And if the above information isn't reason enough for you to consider learning more about EMDR, the American Psychiatric Association consistently recommends EMDR for treatment of PTSD and acute & chronic trauma.
How Will This Help Me?
We've all experienced trauma in our lives, big or small. In fact, children often become developmentally stuck at the age the trauma occurred. Trauma isn't about the specific event, rather it's about how the body experiences the event. That's why sometimes there will be a child in the family who grows up to be an adult without any significant trauma, but then their sibling who is only 1 year younger than them and was raised by the same parents might be struggling with immense trauma. It isn't about the event: trauma is always about how the person experiences it.
EMDR can be a really healing way for you to clear distressing memories and events that have occurred throughout your life. It can help you learn how to regulate your nervous system and help the two sides of your brain to communicate effectively, causing you to experience less anxiety, panic attacks, emotional reactivity, and distress.
The more we learn about EMDR in the mental health field, the more benefits we see. The brain and the body are connected, and EMDR creates a pathway for the two to start talking to each other.
Have you ever heard the saying, "the body keeps the score?" Penned by Bessel Van Der Kolk, it means that even if our brains forget the trauma, our body holds on to it. We store trauma in our body, and sometimes the classic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques aren't enough to get us to release what the body's been holding on to. EMDR is a safe, effective way to reprocess trauma through bilateral stimulation to help the brain and body communicate to each other that you're safe now. And this communication between the brain and the body can bring about lasting freedom, healing, and change.
If you're interested in learning more about EMDR, you can visit EMDR.com to learn more!
Each of our therapists at Root Counseling are trained in EMDR. If you're interested in starting EMDR or have questions about the process, you can set up an appointment or a free consultation with our therapists here.