How Does EMDR Work?
Before we delve into EMDR, what it is and what it does, let’s first talk about trauma and what occurs in our brain when we experience it. This will help us understand EMDR better. Our brains have a natural way to recover from traumatic memories and events. In this process, different portions of our brain send signals to each other. The alarm system for stressful events in our brain – the Amygdala – communicates with the Hippocampus, which assists with learning, including memories about safety and danger, which then communicates with the Prefrontal Cortex. This portion of the brain controls emotion and behaviors.
With these three areas communicating effectively, traumatic situations like a car accident can usually be managed spontaneously. However, there are times when traumatic events occur and they cannot be processed without help. Stress responses like fight, flight, or freeze are part of our natural instinct. When distress from a disturbing event remains such as upsetting images, thoughts, or emotions, it can set off our natural stress responses and give us feelings of being overwhelmed, of being back in that moment. Your mind can convince you that you are reliving those moments instead of just remembering them.
Having trauma does not indicate a weak person or a character flaw. It is a biological issue of the brain. A disturbing situation occurred in which the levels of stress did not allow the brain to properly process the inflow of information, and that stress got stuck in the nervous system. Because of this, the person continues to experience that stress over and over again.
EMDR Therapy helps the brain process these memories and allows normal healing to resume. The traumatic experience is still remembered, but the stress response of fight, flight, or freeze is resolved. Along with the stress response, negative beliefs around the memory are also addressed and removed. Those beliefs might be things like: I’m not safe; I’m not worthy; I don’t have value in relationships to other people.
So what is EMDR? It stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and it is a psychotherapy method used to treat trauma, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and panic disorders. The EMDR International Association says, “EMDR Therapy does not require talking in detail about the distressing issue or completing homework between sessions. Rather than focusing on changing the emotions, thoughts, or behaviors resulting from a distressing issue, EMDR allows the brain to resume its natural healing process. For many clients, EMDR therapy can be completed in fewer sessions than other psychotherapies.” (emdria. org) EMDR works to change the way the traumatic memory is stored in the brain to reduce the symptoms of stress it usually conjures.
The thought behind EMDR is that it provides an accelerated learning process for the brain on a specific memory. The American Psychological Association (APA) states, “EMDR therapy incorporates the use of eye movements and other forms of rhythmic left-right (bilateral) stimulation (e.g., tones or taps). While clients briefly focus on the trauma memory and simultaneously experience bilateral stimulation (BLS), the vividness and emotion of the memory are reduced.”
In his article “EMDR Therapy for Anxiety, Panic, PTSD, and Trauma,” for Psycom, John Riddle states, “It is theorized that EMDR works because the bilateral stimulation bypasses the area of the brain that processes memories and has become stuck.”
EMDR has many methods and is widely accepted as a proven technique for healing trauma. Many people have benefitted from undergoing EMDR Therapy and have overcome negative emotions from unprocessed trauma.
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