In my most recent post, I talk about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). The context was related to remembering (or not) a traumatic experience. However, if you’re like most people, you might wonder precisely how EMDR attains such consistent results. What happens when a therapist uses hand movements and beeping tones? How can this possibly be so effective in treating trauma?

With questions like that in mind, I’d like to delve deeper. It’s important to know how EMDR affects the brain. Understanding the process is a powerful step in building full trust in this approach. So, let’s get started.

What Happens When You Experience Trauma?

This process can be broken down into steps:

  • Two areas of the brain related to emotions and memories—the amygdala and hippocampus—become overstimulated.
  • Your rational brain—highlighted by the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—is overwhelmed and loses control.
  • Your traumatic memories are not properly processed. As a result, they get stuck in the amygdala and hippocampus.
  • This lack of resolution can give you the feeling that those painful memories are taking place in the present. You are then susceptible to flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts.

How Does EMDR Play Into This?

It starts with a realization about the role of REM sleep in processing memories. During the Rapid Eye Movement phase of sleep, your non-traumatic memories are processed by the full brain. In other words, the amygdala and hippocampus are not in full control. This is the premise behind inducing rapid eye movement during EMDR treatments.

By getting you into a state similar to REM sleep, you can engage the full brain while awake. This enables you to process and resolve a memory that, until now, has been stuck in the amygdala and hippocampus complex.

How Does EMDR Affect the Brain?

You can think of it as the ultimate technological fix: unplug and re-plug. Basically, EMDR is designed to repair processing issues. On the first go-around, an experience was too terrible to be effectively dealt with. The memories it created got fragmented and improperly stored. You’re left to struggle with the daily fallout—wondering if you’ll ever feel relaxed again.

During your EMDR sessions, the therapist taps into your brain’s natural ability to resolve memories. Together, you recreate the REM state. If possible, you conjure up images of the traumatic event. Your therapist uses techniques to induce the state that will activate your full brain in an effort to manage the memories. You could say the left and right hemispheres of the brain are communicating while you are in this state.

But How Does This Happen?

We know EMDR works extremely well. As for the exact mechanisms, a few theories exist. Perhaps the most compelling relates to something called “split-focus.” The brain stores different kinds of memories in different ways and places. For example, there are working memories and sight/sound memories. EMDR aims to utilize both functions in a competition of sorts.

With you focused on the therapist’s hand movements, you cannot fully focus on recalling memories. Therefore, the painful memories seem less extreme and thus, easier to fully resolve. A split-focus approach also serves to relax the brain. Accordingly, it associates the memory in question with relaxation. As you might imagine, this desensitizes the traumatic memories. It’s easy to see why EMDR is sometimes called “emotional surgery.”

The hallmark of EMDR lies in treating trauma, but it’s also been shown to be very helpful for people dealing with anxiety, panic attacks, depression, eating disorders, pain management, performance anxiety, and more. If you find yourself curious about this powerful trauma therapy option, I’d love to share more with you. Let’s connect and talk soon.