In order to understand how Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) builds new brain circuitry, it helps to understand how trauma is stored in the brain in the first place. During a dangerous or traumatic episode, such as a moment of violence or an accident, the brain’s ability to reason shuts down. The flight or flight response kicks in—complete with a rush of epinephrine and other involuntary responses like a racing heartbeat—and prepares the body to respond. The problem, however, is that the brain’s ability to process events using higher-order thinking is compromised during the amygdala’s take-over. As a result, the emotions and biological responses experienced during the traumatic event—like helplessness, fear, or low self-worth—are actually stored as memories, making it difficult to evade them when reflecting on the trauma. Without a safe environment to process the traumatic events, the brain will continue to keep those associations between memory and emotion, no matter how harmful.
Some kinds of traumatic events and negative life experiences can actually circumvent normal rational processing in the brain. They are just too intense or prolonged, and our natural responses toward self-preservation short-circuit the brain’s full processing power, leaving an incomplete picture as a result. Because people struggle to effectively process trauma, current triggers can overwhelm and even paralyze trauma victims. The brain remembers the event and the body feels the sensations established at the time, even when others can reason that there is no immediate danger. Fireworks are an easy-to-understand example of this. Though most would consider this safe, victims of PTSD may suffer from the sound of banging fireworks, especially if they have experienced war-related trauma. Trauma breaks the brain’s ability to think about past trauma (and current triggers) in context, instead persisting through the link made between negative experience and negative emotion. This is part of what makes EMDR so appealing—its design helps to free a patient’s traumatic memories from their responses of fear, guilt, and the like.
The goal of EMDR is to focus on a traumatic event and harness its emotional power to then gain new understandings and insight toward the patient’s larger contextual experience. In other words, it helps to dislodge trauma from its debilitating effects so people can see it within the broader context of their lives. This is part of the problem with disturbing memories—they keep their emotional power and resist further processing. And so victims of trauma are powerless to their memories unless aided by a technique to shine a light on their darkest memories. This is the beauty of EMDR. It allows patients to fully process disturbing memories so that they may move on from them with healthier attitudes. EMDR patients report being able to regain a general sense of safety in the world after suffering through trauma that kept them in fear.
By being in a safe place, and through accessing both hemispheres of the brain, distressing thoughts about trauma can be scrutinized and ultimately replaced by empowering attitudes. For example, a victim of sexual violence may feel they are responsible or somehow comlicit in their own trauma. But through EMDR and its reprocessing function, that same patient can walk away feeling a new sense of strength and power for having survived.
Though EMDR can be used on patients with single-event trauma, it also has been shown effective on patients who suffer from more “everyday” encounters that generally hinder their emotional well-being and self-worth. This is good news for people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. As the body of research continues to grow, we will learn more about how EMDR can train the brain to not be captive to memory, but rather be armed for new experience.
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