EMDR uses bi-lateral stimulation to force the brain to process events from the past. Once processed, those events become less disruptive. For example: You may be able to recall a time you were angry with someone close to you. Following this, you thought about the situation and either settled it yourself or worked it out with that person. Now when you see them, you’re not angry, resentful, or anxious. That event was fully processed.
Trauma gets set up, as I mentioned previously, when we aren’t able to process events. This causes the brain to store those events improperly and they can be triggered so we end up having to fight the same battle over and over again.
These unprocessed memories end up getting “stored” in the amygdala and hippocampus. When those parts of the brain become stimulated, we have a flashback or become triggered. Processed memories get moved out of that part of the brain when we sleep, and EMDR mimics the patterns that trigger the transition for us.
In EMDR, a therapist will have a patient follow a light, their fingers, an alternating set of buzzers you hold in your hand, or other physical stimulation which repeats back and forth from right to left. This sets the brain into mimicking slow-wave sleep, where we usually process our days. To be a bit more clear, I’m going to cite an article about this mechanism.
The [orienting and relaxation response] is a natural attentional reflex that can occur with any novel environmental stimulus increasing readiness to respond to danger (Wilson et al., 1996; Barrowcliff et al., 2003, 2004). The initial freeze response is accompanied by changes in autonomic responses. In the absence of danger, it is rapidly replaced with a feeling of relaxation holding the potential to desensitize the traumatic memory, suppressing its associated disturbance. Eye movements (EMs) trigger an OR that can (i) facilitate access to the traumatic memory without avoidance and (ii) cause subsequent rapid extinction after the determination of no immediate threat (Armstrong and Vaughan, 1996).
As anyone who has lived through a traumatic event can attest, the triggering responses to the event after the fact tend to follow “freeze, fight/flight response.” But in the safety of a therapy session, that fight/flight is already defused, so pulling out that memory is safer. Since a patient is already in a calmed state and experiencing those slow wave sleep patterns, we finally get to push that world-shattering moment into a place where it loses the power to cause us harm.
Next week I’ll get into what it’s like after an EMDR session, using my own experience.
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