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Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Understanding How the Brain Processes Trauma

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a type of therapy that offers a different approach in treating symptoms related to trauma. While EMDR has gained popularity for its effectiveness in treating trauma over the last decade, EMDR has been in practice for over 30 years. EMDR was initially intended to treat individuals with PTSD but research has shown its effectiveness to help treat individuals with a multitude of symptoms. We can define trauma as a deeply disturbing event that causes emotional distress. EMDR techniques focus on reducing the level of emotional distress when thinking about the event in order to help an individual process how the disturbing event has impacted them.

How does it work?

If you are wondering how rapid eye movements could possibly help someone work through something as traumatic as being in a war or sexually assaulted, you wouldn’t be alone. EMDR utilizes the brain’s neural network to ‘rewire’ an individual’s emotional response to traumatic memories. Our brain’s main goal is to keep us alive and it communicates with our mind and body how it thinks best to do so. Unfortunately the brain isn’t always accurate in recognizing threats, especially after successfully keeping one safe from an actual threat. After a traumatic event the brain stores the memory of that event and creates a neural pathway to help it recognize and prepare for threats similar to the trauma. A common example is how war veterans will respond to fireworks. When the veteran was in actual danger during war the brain recognized loud booming sounds and lights as threats to safety, because they were, and stored that memory to help prepare for any future sounds and lights that are similar. Then when the veteran returns home and they go to a firework show the brain goes into protection mode as it utilizes the neural pathway of loud sound and flashing lights means threat. This will trigger an automatic nervous system response in a variety of different forms, all with the intention to ‘save’ the veteran from the threat that was encoded into their system before.

Now that we know how the brain recognizes treats both accurately and inaccurately, we can utilize the brain’s inaccuracy to desensitize an individual’s emotional response to the traumatic memories. Have you ever heard the phrase ‘the brain can’t do two things accurately at once?’ That’s part of the technique utilized by EMDR. Sure most people can walk and talk at the same time, but we also know that hundreds of car accidents are caused by individuals changing their radio while driving. The brain cannot accurately attend to both tasks at the same time. When we utilize binaural stimulation (eye movements, sounds, tactile stimulation) our brain is able to attend to the memory of the trauma while not being able to attend to the emotions at the same capacity. This allows one to reduce their emotional response to the trauma and attend to the logical part of the memory. This processing is the ‘D’ part of EMDR, desensitization.

The ‘R’ part of EMDR is what is known as reprocessing, a technique to create adaptive neural networks that can help an individual attend to their emotional needs in stressful circumstances. In EMDR sessions a clinician will have you identify a negative idea one has of themselves due to the trauma they endured, and then help them identify a more adaptive/positive belief they can think to ‘rewire’ their neural network. This technique differs from CBT or other thought challenging theories as it continues to utilize the binaural stimulation to re-enforce the adaptive cognition.

Who is appropriate for EMDR?

The techniques utilized in EMDR can be applied to help most individuals who are working through a difficult time or experiencing intense emotions. EMDR has been shown to be effective in treating depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other symptoms that may be related to a traumatic event. It is important to remember that trauma is subjective to what the brain considers deeply disturbing, not what is socially recognized as ‘treating enough.’ We often refer to the differences in trauma as ‘big t’ and ‘little t.’ EMDR can be used to treat an individual who has experienced any severity of trauma.

Who is not appropriate for EMDR?

EMDR is not appropriate for individuals who are pregnant or are attempting to become pregnant. Individuals who have an epileptic or seizure disorders may participate in EMDR if cleared by their doctor. Individuals who have cognitive disabilities can be assessed by a clinician for their appropriateness of EMDR based on their cognitive function. In most cases children under 12 year’s old are not cognitively appropriate for EMDR but always reach out to a clinician for further consultation if you believe they may benefit from EMDR.

Quick FAQ’s:

Should I try out EMDR even if I think I won’t be good at it?

Yes! Everyone moves at their own pace and a clinician will help guide you through the eye movements/bilateral stimulation. This process is different from others and takes some time to adjust to. Most individuals have difficulty processing right away and that is okay! The point is to get processing started at whatever pace one needs.

Can I do EMDR via Telehealth?

Yes! While most clinician’s and individuals see EMDR being most beneficial when done in person, virtual EMDR has advanced greatly. We utilize the same strategies and techniques regardless of how EMDR is being delivered.

Do I have to tell my EMDR clinician every detail of an event?

No. We work with whatever amount of detail you would like to disclose and we work with what you feel comfortable bringing up. Our strategies are adaptable and can gain access to negative neural pathways without going into every detail of an event.

Is EMDR similar to hypnosis?

No. During EMDR you are fully present and in control. While EMDR eye movements may look similar to a hypnotic technique, EMDR does not allow an individual to enter a trance state and EMDR utilizes the conscious to help process an individual's intense emotions.

Written by,

Madison Repak, LPC



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