The Science Behind EMDR: How it Works in the Brain

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a revolutionary therapeutic approach that has transformed the lives of many individuals struggling with painful memories, traumatic experiences, and emotional distress. 

But how exactly does EMDR work in the brain to bring about these transformative changes? Let’s delve into the fascinating world of EMDR therapy and its profound impact on the brain. 

Breaking Down EMDR: Eye Movements and Bilateral Stimulation

The name, “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing,” provides insight into its core components. “Eye Movement” refers to using back-and-forth eye movements during therapy sessions. 

This may involve following the therapist’s fingers, an object on a screen (in the case of telehealth), or possibly a light from a specialized light bar. This will just depend on what your therapist uses in their practice. These eye movements are a form of bilateral stimulation, which just means stimulating both sides of the body. 

Desensitization: Reducing Emotional Pain

The “Desensitization” part of EMDR refers to a reduction in emotional pain associated with a memory. As you do EMDR, you will gradually become desensitized to the memory, and it will no longer hold a strong emotional charge. This is because eye movements and bilateral stimulation, in general, have been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, which plays a central role in regulating emotions and assigning emotional meaning to events. When traumatic memories are recalled, the amygdala becomes very activated, creating the emotional pain associated with those memories. 

Eye movements and other forms of bilateral stimulation lower the activity in the amygdala, which, in turn, decreases the emotional pain tied to these memories. By reducing the emotional charge, EMDR assists individuals in better regulating their emotions, offering a sense of relief and emotional balance. 

Reprocessing Traumatic Memories: A Path to Healing

The “Reprocessing” part of EMDR refers to the process that happens to a memory in your memory networks. Traumatic memories are “stuck” in our minds with all the same emotions, bodily sensations, and beliefs that occurred at the time of the memory. These memories are linked to what we refer to as “maladaptive memory networks.” EMDR allows your mind to reprocess the memory, “metabolize” the emotions and bodily sensations that are stuck with the memory, and thus move it from a dysfunctionally stored memory network to one of your other, adaptively stored memory networks. 

Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Memory Networks 

Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) is a key concept of EMDR that will make it easier for you to understand the process itself. The idea is that we all have both adaptive and maladaptive memory networks – maladaptive memories, such as traumatic experiences, are stored differently from regular, non-upsetting memories, which are stored in your adaptive memory networks. Memories in the adaptive memory network are ones you can look back on and feel proud of yourself like you did the best you could, it wasn’t your fault, etc. 

On the other hand, memories within the maladaptive memory network give rise to negative core beliefs, distorted self-perceptions, and a skewed sense of control. This is why a part of you may logically understand that you are worthwhile and good, and yet another part of you feels like you are unworthy or bad. Both beliefs are fueled by past memories in your adaptive and maladaptive memory networks. Where a memory is stored depends on the state of your nervous system at the time the memory is created, along with the associations you already have and multiple other factors. EMDR’s goal is to connect the maladaptively stored memory with your adaptive memory network. 

The Past Meets the Present

One of the remarkable features of EMDR therapy is its ability to bridge the gap between the past and the present. When a similar event or trigger occurs, it can activate a physiological reaction tied to the maladaptive memory. By connecting a maladaptively stored memory to your adaptive memory networks, EMDR assists individuals in distinguishing between past traumatic experiences and their present reality, allowing for healthier responses to current situations. 

In conclusion, EMDR’s profound impact on the brain comes from its ability to reduce emotional pain, reprocess traumatic memories, and guide individuals toward different conclusions about themselves and the world. By addressing the root causes of emotional distress, EMDR opens the door to healing and transformation, helping individuals regain control over their lives and rewrite their narratives.