How does EMDR work?
Much like how our physical body reacts to bumps and bruises, our mind and emotional well-being is constantly attempting to heal itself. Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a means by which you can accelerate your natural emotional healing that would otherwise take much longer. Through its desensitisation and reprocessing phases, your emotional wounds are transformed to a state of emotional resolution.
The “Processing” part of EMDR does not mean talking about a traumatic experience. “Processing” means setting up a learning state that will allow experiences that are causing problems to be “digested” and stored appropriately in your brain. That means that what is useful to you from an experience will be learned, and stored with appropriate emotions in your brain, and be able to guide you in positive ways in the future.
The eye movement aspect of the process speeds up the process of therapy and it’s these left to right eye movements that makes EMDR so unique. Some therapists use alternatives to finger movements, such as hand or toe tapping, light beams or musical tones, but they’re thought to replicate the REM part of sleep where the brain processes memories.
Neurological research show that the rhythmic horizontal eye movements used in EMDR reduce the activity in the brain’s fear circuits. It’s the eye movements that allow our brain and our nervous system to do the healing work they are capable of.
‘In the Rapid Eye Movement portion, the client focuses on a troubling memory and identifies the belief he has about himself connected to this negative memory (for example, in dealing with a rape, the person may believe “I am dirty”). The individual then formulates a positive belief that he would like to have about himself (“I am a worthwhile and good person in control of my life.”). All the physical sensations and emotions that accompany the memory are identified. The individual then goes over the memory while focusing on an external stimulus that creates bilateral (side to side) eye movement. This is most often achieved by watching the therapist moving a finger. After each set of bilateral movements, the individual is asked how he feels. This process continues until the memory is no longer disturbing.
The individual is processing the trauma with both hemispheres of the brain stimulated. The chosen positive belief is then installed, via bilateral movement, to replace the negative one. Each session normally lasts for about one hour. It is believed that EMDR works because the “bilateral stimulation” by-passes the area of the brain that has become stuck due to the trauma and is preventing the left side of the brain from self-soothing the right side of the brain.
During this procedure, clients tend to “process” the memory in a way that leads to a peaceful resolution. This often results in increased insight regarding both previously disturbing events and long-held negative thoughts about the self that have grown out of the original traumatic event. For example, an assault victim may come to realize that he was not to blame for what happened, he is now safe, that the event is really over, and, as a result, he can regain a general sense of safety in his world.’
While EMDR should never be thought of as “a quick fix”, many clients are amazed at how rapidly they are able to fully process a painful or upsetting memory. The memory of what happens still exists, but there is no longer a ‘charge’ of emotions, or physical effect from thinking about it.
The science of EMDR
Brain scans have clearly demonstrated changes after EMDR therapy, returning the brain to more ‘normal’ functioning. The bottom line of EMDR outcome research is that clinical change can be both profound and efficient.
Research has also found that during EMDR sessions the brain is more active. The specific areas of the brain that are in this active state include the prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.
This is important because:
- The prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning, organising, focusing, personality, and impulse control.
- The orbitofrontal cortex controls your emotions and how you interact with other people.
- The anterior cingulate cortex also works to regulate impulse control, as well as empathy and judgment
Therefore, your brain isn’t just sitting idly by during an EMDR session. Instead, it is actively working to process and resolve the trauma and its connected emotions.
Please remember, these are not medical recommendations. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you. EMDR should always be delivered by properly trained therapists.
EMDR Treatment Case Studies
Universiteit van Amsterdam (UVA). (2017, June 29). PTSD in children quickly and effectively treatable within hours. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 23, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/06/170629085311.htm
Carletto Sara, Borghi Martina, Bertino Gabriella, Oliva Francesco, Cavallo Marco, Hofmann Arne, Zennaro Alessandro, Malucchi Simona, Ostacoli LucaTreating Post-traumatic Stress Disorder in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis: A Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing the Efficacy of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Relaxation Therapy Frontiers in Psychology VOL. 7 2016 Page 526 https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00526 DOI10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00526
Chen L, Zhang G, Hu M, Liang X. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing versus cognitive-behavioral therapy for adult posttraumatic stress disorder: systematic review and meta-analysis. J Nerv Ment Dis. 2015 Jun;203(6):443-51. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000306. PMID: 25974059.
Chen Y-R, Hung K-W, Tsai J-C, Chu H, Chung M-H, Chen S-R, et al. (2014) Efficacy of Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for Patients with Posttraumatic-Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. PLoS ONE 9(8): e103676. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0103676
Bisson, J., Roberts, N.P., Andrew, M., Cooper, R. & Lewis, C. (2013). Psychological therapies for chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adults (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003388.pub4
Bradley, R., Greene, J., Russ, E., Dutra, L., & Westen, D. (2005).A multidimensional meta-analysis of psychotherapy for PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 214-227.
Lee, C.W., & Cuijpers, P. (2013). A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories. Journal of Behavior Therapy & Experimental Psychiatry, 44, 231-23
Seidler, G.H., & Wagner, F.E. (2006). Comparing the efficacy of EMDR and trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of PTSD: a meta-analytic study. Psychological Medicine, 36,1515-1522.
Acarturk, C., Konuk, E., Cetinkaya, M., Senay, I., Sijbrandij, M., Gulen, B., & Cuijpers, P. (2016). The efficacy of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression among Syrian refugees: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Psychological medicine, 46(12), 2583-2593
Raymond W. Gunter, Glen E. Bodner, How eye movements affect unpleasant memories: Support for a working-memory account, Behaviour Research and Therapy, Volume 46, Issue 8, 2008, Pages 913-931, ISSN 0005-7967,https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2008.04.006.
Comparison of two treatments for traumatic stress: A community-based study of EMDR and prolonged exposure, Ironson, B. Freund, J. L. Strauss, J. Williams
Scheck MM, Schaeffer JA, Gillette C. Brief psychological intervention with traumatized young women: the efficacy of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. J Trauma Stress. 1998 Jan;11(1):25-44. doi: 10.1023/A:1024400931106. PMID: 9479674.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.