Updated: Mar 15
EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Can moving eyes back and forth really heal trauma?
I have to say, that as a therapist provider as well as consumer in my own therapy, I was the biggest EMDR skeptic and non-believer in this intervention. I thought, “How can moving eyes back and forth really heal past trauma?” After several weekend long training of EMDR, as well as my own personal therapy with EMDR, I can confidently say that I am a big believer in this intervention, and I’ve formally drank the Kool-Aid. Here’s why I am a big believer in EMDR for trauma.
Accessing Beyond the Pre-frontal Cortex I am a big believer in talk therapy, and feel as though this is a necessary part of therapy. We need talk therapy to build rapport, establish a positive relationship between therapist and client, and verbally share the information we need to share. Thought process occurs in the pre-frontal cortex but what’s so missed with talk therapy and trauma is that trauma is stored beyond the prefrontal cortex. Trauma is stored in the nervous system. Trauma additionally is stored in the limbic system, the mammalian part of the brain. This part of the brain is where our survival mechanism exists (fight, flight, and freeze) and information/experiences get translated into emotional responses. This occurs beyond the frontal lobe. And that’s why EMDR therapy works. It’s a non-talk therapy where you don’t need very many words in this intervention. You actually access more body, and somatic experiences through the mammalian part of the brain.
Role of the Eye Movements EMDR attempts to mimic REM sleep during the intervention process. Therapists typically, in a formal sequence of EMDR therapy, instruct the client to move their eyes back and forth for a period of time, in relation to a particular traumatic experience. The point of the eye movements are to mimic REM sleep, the most restorative time during sleep. This is where cellular regeneration occurs, and this is where short term to long term memories get transferred in the hippocampus. So the point of this exercise is to allow for an unconscious memory, core belief, fear, body memory, or really, whatever was stored in the memory network to come to surface in conscious memory for healing and re-defining. The brain has been made to heal itself, however a traumatic experience prevents the brain from fully healing. A traumatically stored memory is stored in an isolated bubble of an experience, which means that the sight, thoughts, smells, emotions, and feelings get frozen in time. Therefore, the past is the present, according to the brain. In additional the developmental age with which the traumatic event occurred is stored in the brain. Hyper-arousal as well as hypo-arousal freeze time and space, which can mean that external events that are similar to the past trauma can trigger the same reaction from the time of the developmental age. How we think of ourselves get frozen at the time of the trauma.
What’s important to note for therapists is that in much of our graduate education, we were taught to make our clients feel more comfortable. And while I understand the reasoning for that, I would argue that we in fact must challenge our clients to go there. There’s also this misnomer that we can cause our clients to feel and get upset. But this is not the case. We are never the ones causing the distress, the distress has already been there. EMDR just brings the distress forward.
My Own Experience With EMDR In my own personal experience with EMDR therapy, I was astonished. After bilateral stimulation through my eyes and through bilateral tapping, all of these memories and thoughts came forward that I hadn’t thought about in many years. Additionally, some of these thoughts were thoughts that I had never known existed in my conscious brain. I had conscious access to a new part of my brain, the part that stored and froze my past pain. I also had access to the negative beliefs that were stored in those places. This therapy is not for the faint of heart, you have to be willing to think and feel distressing things, while handling the intensity of those memories. If you’re interested in exploring this, you’ll need to find a really skilled therapist who will prepare you and who will guide you. It’s not recommended to jump right in this therapy, especially the bilateral stimulation. Of course every case is different and it’s dependent case by case, however I would caution people to start bilaterals right away because you need to learn how to manage your triggers, and learn how you will manage and take care of yourself when these distorted thoughts and unfortunate memories come forward. EMDR is not for the faint of heart. You have to learn how to calm down your nervous system, you have to learn how to manage emotions and anger. It took me a year of talk therapy to even be open to this, because I really needed to establish trust with my therapist, and I also needed a reality check. While I had a lot of intellectual insight, my behaviors weren’t changing. The adult part of me was not connected to the child part of me. Much of my symptoms were not improving, and through just talk, it turned into venting and re-exploring the same issues over and over. My relationships and my challenging experiences in present day, as well as how I reacted to those experiences were all connected to my challenging past in early childhood. Remember, trauma freezes the mammalian part of the brain, and often freezes people at that time of their development when the trauma occurred. How I reacted in my early years, was much of how I was reacting today. And thus, my early past needed to be looked at with EMDR.
The other beauty with EMDR is that it points to the psyche’s incredible gift and drive to wholeness and health. The brain knows exactly what to do. By storing the trauma in an old memory network, it’s helping people survive that trauma. EMDR helps get the brain our of survival mode. And the brain helps us to connect to our compassion, wisdom, and empowerment, our true core selves. In EMDR, the brain helps from moving from a distressing emotion to an adaptive resolution. It’s quite magical.
Janet is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in the states of California and Florida. Janet works from a trauma focused and attachment oriented perspective, supporting individuals and couples through their healing of past and current distressing events. She's trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Havening Techniques. EMDR and Havening Techniques are psychosensory modality that supports individuals in de-traumatizing stressful memories in the brain. Janet sub-specializes in sex therapy, supporting individuals and couples in their relational and sexual wellness by providing effective tools that can support in managing conflict, and increasing intimacy and connection.