What is EMDR?
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a treatment modality that can be helpful in working with trauma. It has been in use since 1988, and has been extensively validated in a large body of scientific research. It is one of the most highly recommended treatments for PTSD by the American Psychiatric Association, the World Health Organization, and the U.S. Department of Defense. EMDR uses visual, audio, or tactile bilateral stimulation to activate the brain's innate capacity for self-healing:
Painful experiences do not necessarily leave lasting scars, provided that we have the internal and/or external resources to process them in a healthy (adaptive) way. Just as the body can heal itself if it isn’t overwhelmed – a paper cut, for example, heals up quite nicely on its own, and the common cold is no match for a robust immune system – so, too, can the psyche heal itself from many of the painful experiences that are part and parcel of being alive.
And, just as the body is sometimes overwhelmed and needs assistance – as is the case with a deep wound or a broken bone, or a staph infection – so, too, can the mind be overwhelmed and unable to heal itself without some assistance.
As children, we rely on our caregivers as external resources to soothe us, to keep us safe, and to construct an adaptive narrative about what is happening. As adults, we have (hopefully) internalized the self-soothing skills and adaptive information processing that was (hopefully) shown to us by our caregivers. But when we are emotionally overwhelmed with intense feelings, and we lack the internal or external resources needed to make sense of what is happening – for example, when a child’s caregiver is abusive instead of nurturing, or when, as an adult, you are unable to soothe yourself and you lack a network of friends to whom you can turn for support – we experience trauma.
Traumatic memories remain unprocessed, and brain imaging shows that they are encoded differently in the brain than non-traumatic memories. They are stored in isolation, disconnected from other neural networks, and can generate (in addition to flashbacks and nightmares) maladaptive thoughts, emotions, behavior patterns, and physical symptoms such as headaches, chronic muscle tension, or even chronic illness. Adaptive information (for example, a cognitive understanding that “I am a good person,” "I'm safe now," or "I'm allowed to say 'no’”) – if the traumatized person has been exposed to it – is stored elsewhere in the brain. It can't connect with, nor impact, the traumatic memories. This is why people may say something like, "I get what happened, and that it wasn't my fault, but I still feel ashamed and defective," or "I know my supervisors like me, so why do I still get terrified and start to shake whenever I have to ask them for something?"
Bilateral stimulation allows the information in the adaptive neural networks to connect with and "re-process" the traumatic memories. After treatment, although the traumatizing events can still be remembered, it is no longer upsetting to do so. Equally significant, negative beliefs about the self (such as "I'm disgusting," "I'm not safe," or "I have no control") have been transformed into positive ones that are genuinely believed and deeply felt.
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