EMDR: How Does It Work in the Brain?

 Navigating the past to understand how it impacts our present is a unique challenge. We’re taught from a young age that toughness is the answer to everything—that we should push through without looking back. As a result, many of the clients I work with come to me feeling like their issues are a matter of personal failure. Anxiety, addiction, grief—they feel these are things they should be able to conquer through sheer force of will.

 In reality, my experience as a therapist has taught me that many of the issues we face are the ghosts of past trauma—self-defense mechanisms that live in our body. There are several tools therapists can use to help heal those wounds and put those ghosts to rest, but EMDR is among the most effective. In today’s article, we’ll explore how EMDR works in the brain.

Natural Healing Processes

 EMDR is grounded in the Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) model, a framework which theorizes that psychological health is linked to how memories are processed and stored. When we go through a traumatic experience that triggers our fight-or-flight instinct, our bodies (and brains!) are under tremendous pressure. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline heighten our senses and influence the way we store and process memories. As a result, traumatic memories are often extra sharp or vague and indistinct.

 It’s easier to understand this difference when we think of physical pain. We know what it’s like to burn our hand on the stove, or take a spill from a bike. We recall it instinctively, without even thinking about it. These memories are subconscious and produce an instinctive reaction to help us avoid pain in the future.

  What we don’t realize is that our brains do the same thing with emotional pain. Children who grow in homes suffering from abuse or neglect often deal with anxiety without understanding why. A tense conversation with a superior at work makes them feel nauseous—the thought of being reprimanded brings up emotional pain they’d long since buried. According to the AIP, this is because those memories are stuck—our bodies preserve them in a liminal space between conscious and unconscious recall.

 EMDR is a type of therapy that allows us to tap into those memories, process them, and release the subconscious reaction to triggers.

close up photo of a person's blue eyeBilateral Stimulation

 A cornerstone of EMDR therapy is bilateral stimulation. This process relies on rapid back-and-forth eye movements to stimulate parts of the brain reserved for emotional, traumatic memories. During EMDR therapy clients find it easier to recall the memories that formed the basis for things that trigger them.

 During EMDR therapy, clients report:

  • Enhanced perception of physical senses
  • Sense of relaxation/detached recollection
  • Enhanced focus
  • Emotional sensitivity
  • Improved recall of traumatic memories

Memory Reprocessing

 Reprocessing traumatic memories is another key element of EMDR therapy. Bilateral stimulation is used to improve recall of those memories, at which point they can be reprocessed with the guidance of a trained therapist in a safe, supportive space. In practice, this reduces the emotional charge of those memories. In accordance with the Adaptive Information Processing Model, this allows memories to finish the natural integration process and allow a return to psychological health.

Benefits of EMDR Therapy

  EMDR therapy offers a broad array of benefits—particularly for people who have endured traumatic experiences. Some of the most commonly reported benefits include:

  • Decrease in anxiety and stress
  • Improved mood and emotional stability
  • Increased sense of self-worth
  • Feelings of agency and resilience
  • Stability in personal relationships

  EMDR therapy is science-based, pharmacologically non-invasive form of therapy with a proven track record of success treating a wide variety of mental health concerns.

Schedule a Consultation

 You don’t have to let the ghosts of your past limit you in the present. I would love to learn more about the challenges you’re facing, and explore whether or not EMDR can help you. Reach out today to schedule a consultation for EMDR therapy.