How Does EMDR therapy work?

When a person is involved in a traumatic event, they may feel overwhelmed and their brain may be unable to fully process what is going on. The memory of the event seems to become “stuck” so that it remains very intense and vivid. The person can re-experience what they saw, heard and smelt and the full force of the distress they felt whenever the memory comes to mind.

EMDR aims to help the brain “unstick” and reprocess the memory properly so that it is no longer so intense. It also helps to desensitise the person to the emotional impact of the memory, so that they can think about the event without experiencing such strong feelings.

It does this by asking the person to recall the traumatic event while they also move their eyes from side-to-side, hear a sound in each ear alternately, or feel a tap on each hand alternately. These side-to-side sensations seem to effectively stimulate the “stuck” processing system in the brain so that it can reprocess the information more like an ordinary memory, reducing its intensity.

The effect may be similar to what occurs naturally during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, when your eyes move rapidly from side to side as the brain processes the events of the day. Some research suggests that EMDR is effective because concentrating on another task whilst processing a distressing memory gives the brain more work to do*. When the brain is not giving its full attention to processing the memory, it starts to become less vivid. This allows the person to distance themselves from it and begin to remember the event in a more helpful and manageable way.

EMDR is a complex therapeutic process that should always be delivered by properly trained therapists.

* e.g. Gunter & Bodner, 2008

EMDR aims to help the brain achieve balance again.  One of the distinctive ways in which it does this is through “Bilateral Stimulation”.

Bilateral stimulation refers to a set of techniques that the therapist will use to stimulate the left and right sides of the brain and will be applied whilst you focus upon aspects of the memory of the traumatic event.

Bilateral stimulation can be done in the following ways:

    • Eye movements – The therapist will ask you to follow a stimulus with your eyes.  This stimulus could be their hands, a light or stick.
    • Sounds – Using clicks or tones alternately at either ear.
    • Sensations – The therapist may tap the backs of your hands or ask you to hold a pair of buzzers to stimulate sensations alternately.

There are a few theories as to why bilateral stimulation is a beneficial aspect of trauma processing.  One of which suggests that EMDR stimulates the processes that occur whilst we are asleep.  REM sleep is the stage of sleeping in which we dream.  Dreaming is believed to be the process in which our minds make sense of the experiences of the day and process them into long term memory stores.  When we experience a traumatic event, because of the additional emotional content of a trauma, rather than just having dreams, we have nightmares.  These wake us up and as such, the brain is unable to do its job during sleeptime hours.

REM stands for “Rapid Eye Movement”.  If you have ever watched someone while they sleep during the REM stage, you will have seen that their eyes are moving rapidly from side to side – Just like what we do within EMDR.

EMDR helps us to process trauma by simulating “REM sleep in the daytime” using Bilateral stimulation.