Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
When I tell people about EMDR therapy I often have to start by saying that it might sound too good to be true, but it really can be very effective at healing trauma, and it can require less talking about your painful experiences than other therapies. This is because rather than focus on talking about your feelings or experiences, EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (BLS) to help reprocess traumatic memories - that means activating both sides of the brain and body. This is done via eye movements, tapping, or tones. It can help make those memories more manageable and even neutralise triggers to prevent, reduce, or stop trauma responses - like nightmares and flashbacks.
How does it work?
When you experience something traumatic, your brain processes memories differently. I like to think about this like trying to save a file on a computer that freezes. The file might get corrupted and not open anymore or when it does open, things have moved around a bit or the last piece of work you did has disappeared.
With trauma and the brain, when it tries to process a memory during something very frightening or upsetting, or when we think our life is at risk, it might only pick up pieces that have been moved around and fractured, or it might store the memory but we just can't access it. Sometimes we can remember pieces very clearly and other parts are foggy or unclear. Sometimes we don't even know a memory is missing.
Those fractured, partial, embodied, memories often get attached to intense emotions, like fear, terror, disgust, and anger. They can lead to confusing feelings or behaviours if we struggle to piece together what is triggering us and why.
This can also be true for what can sometimes be called trauma with a small 't'. When we think of trauma, we often think of big dramatic things that when you tell other people, they respond with shock (or horror) and say things like, 'Oh! That's so awful!'.
But there are other kinds of trauma too, like the kind that simmers along more slowly, like a slow-burn thriller where you sit on the edge of your seat for the whole film waiting for something bad to happen. Sometimes it's feeling like you're never good enough, or that you've never been wanted. These kinds of trauma memories can be more subtle and blend into a general feeling or experience, rather than specific and intense memories. EMDR can work with these too.
We can access these triggering and traumatic memories through eye movement. On the one hand, that might sound a little weird, but if we think about where the eyes are placed, it makes a lot of sense.
The eyes are placed at the front of the brain, but the occipital lobe (where what we see gets processed and interpreted) is positioned at the back. This means that the information from the eyes has to travel through both hemispheres (the left and right sides of the brain) until they join that part at the back of your skull.
It is connected to other parts of the brain, such as the temporal lobe that plays a key role in managing emotions and memories. This is because for you to make sense of what you see, you need to recall what it is you are seeing. For example, if you see the face of a dear friend in a photograph, you need to remember what your friend looks like and what a photograph is. You also need to remember the emotions associated with it, so you know whether that face is a friend or foe, and if photographs are good, bad, or indifferent. So memories and emotions are tied closely to our visual system.
Every moment of your life has passed through your eyes - even when they are closed.
If all that gets 'recorded' is bodily sensations (like touch or fear) and the darkness of your closed eyes, those memories are in there. That's one of the amazing ways that we can heal trauma that we can't remember or that occurred when we were unconscious - because sometimes that 'not remembering' is really a different kind of memory that we are not used to accessing. Fascinating, right?
The video below shows some of the contexts that EMDR is used in, what it can help with, and what people think of it:
What to expect at a session
In a session we bring a painful memory to the foreground and work with our neurological and embodied responses to help heal it. The first time the traumatic memory got processed it attached a high degree of intense emotion to it and perhaps fractured it too, or hid it behind layers that we couldn't get through. This time, we reprocess it, by simply moving your eyes back and forth, tapping your shoulders or knees, of listening to a sound in alternating ears. This bilateral stimulation encourages the two hemispheres to connect through a big group of nerve fibres (the corpus callosum) and helps us to release the attached emotions and make that memory have less of an impact on our day-to-day lives.
Sometimes there is more work needed before this eye moving process. For example, if you're not sure what memories are impacting on how you are feeling (this can be very common, particularly for trauma that has occurred in childhood, or if we tend to minimise or dismiss our own feelings/pain). So we might need to spend some time doing a little memory detective work or listening to your trauma responses to see where they are guiding us. One thing to be mindful of, is that you might come to a session to talk about a current cause of anxiety, like a job interview or the start of a new relationship, and end up talking about and healing memories from childhood that you had no idea were the underlying cause of that anxiety. We might also need to do a little preparation work too, if we are going to be opening up some difficult memories and feelings, then we want to make sure that you are well prepared and supported for working through them. This might include some psychoeducational work (i.e. more of a teaching focus) on how to manage difficult emotions and developing your coping skills 'toolbox' before moving forward with EMDR. This all depends on what trauma we are working with, and where you are in your own healing journey.
This video below, from the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA), outlines each stage of EMDR therapy.