EMDR is a type of therapy that uses bilateral stimulation of the physical senses, in order to allow one’s brain-body the opportunity to sort out and reorganize memories from the past that have gotten stuck and get re-activated in the present.
There can be times in life when an experience is not stored or integrated in the typical way, in a way that fits smoothly into the tapestry of your life story. Instead the experience becomes a memory that is not like your typical memories, when you remember the experience it comes with a level of emotion that feels way bigger than warranted and can sometimes feel like the experience is happening all over again in the present moment. You don’t get the opportunity to recognize that the memory is something that happened in the past and is now gone, because survival mechanisms of your brain have gotten busy telling you that you’re in danger.
This mis-storing of an experience can happen when someone’s life or safety or sense of worth is threatened, it can be your own or someone near to you. The experience can be a trauma in the traditional sense of the word: combat, rape, near-fatal car accident. Or the experience can be more mild yet still very troubling: a parent being incarcerated, a spouse having an affair. Or even very innocuous seeming events from childhood can get stuck and cause later distress: feeling left out of special birthday party, losing the election for 5th grade class president.
The typical way that our brain and memory systems work is to link together things that are associated; so when we’re on a certain topic we can easily access relevant information, but ask us out of the blue for some random fact then we might struggle to find it. And memories aren’t just expressed by words, there are memories that are images or sensations or emotions which can be more difficult for our verbally focused minds to identify and yet this sort of memory still gets linked up in an associated network. This network of memories is what can give us a fleeting feeling of déjà vu, or in the case of a mis-stored memory the network can take us from a safe present moment and put us into the re-experiencing of a past moment when we felt threatened.
An important part of EMDR is that the process illuminates memories that have not been processed and stored and gives the brain-body the opportunity to do that work as it naturally does. The brain-body is a complicated and integrative system that has particular parts that specialize in particular tasks and yet all works in conjunction when things are going smoothly. When the brain notices a threat it directs energy away from certain processes in order to ensure that the threat is managed. Unfortunately a mis-stored memory continues to alert the brain to threat every time that memory network is triggered so the brain process that keeps track of time is ignored and it feels like the past experience is happening right now.
Through the use of bilateral stimulation, as well as other tools, the brain is able to bring all of its parts into collaborative alignment with the end result of storing memories of past events in a way that no longer triggers distress in the moment. The brain is doing the natural healing that it is designed to do, with the help of an extra intervention; just like when the skin is trying to heal a cut and may need the help of a bandage to cover a scab that keeps catching and ripping open. More to come on what this extra intervention, bilateral stimulation, is all about in the next blog post.