How exactly does EMDR therapy affect the brain? While walking in the park in 1987, Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., was thinking about a traumatic experience. She realized that her eyes were darting back and forth, much like they do in the REM stage of sleep, during the negative thoughts. After her eye movements ended, she found the memories less disturbing and began to study the phenomenon. Her research led to the development of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), a therapy for processing difficult emotions.
1. Taking a detailed history and establishing a treatment plan
2. Preparing for treatment and building a relationship with the client
3. Targeting a memory to address in a session
4. Evaluating the traumatic event and developing an EMDR session
5. Installing positive memories to replace the disturbing ones
6. Scanning the body for a somatic response
7. Closing the session and returning a sense of equilibrium
8. Re-evaluating progress and setting new targets
Individual sessions usually take place once or twice a week for six to 12 weeks, but some people find relief more quickly. When you have an EMDR session, the clinician will ask you to recall specific memories. When combined with guided eye movements, accessing the adverse event lessens its effect on your emotions.
Imagine that your brain is a filing cabinet, and every memory has its own file. During the day, positive and negative events occur, and you don’t have time to file them all away. You may also have old childhood memories or times when you felt overwhelmed or afraid.
During REM sleep, your brain tries to put these events in the right places, but some unpleasant ones don’t fit and go unfiled. When something triggers an unprocessed memory, the feelings return to their original intensity.
The left side of your brain communicates with the right side of your body, and the right side of your brain communicates with the left side of your body. The right hemisphere controls language and the left hemisphere controls logic. Because trauma activates the right side of the brain and shuts down the left, trauma gets stuck.
EMDR sessions calm the amygdala, the part of the brain that deals with emotions. This enables both sides of the brain to work together to process trauma and reduce distress. Your brain keeps the memory, but the memory becomes more organized and easier to access.
When performed by a therapist trained to do EMDR, the protocol is safe and effective. Like any therapy that addresses painful feelings, sessions may stir unpleasant emotions. A skilled clinician will prepare you for potential EMDR risks before treatment.
1. Fatigue after sessions
2. Emotional sensitivity
3. Change in patterns of dreaming
4. Recall of suppressed or forgotten memories
5. Physical sensations, such as lightheadedness or muscle contractions
EMDR side effects usually get less intense as therapy progresses. Tell your therapist about any symptoms between sessions so they can be addressed.
EMDR risks are higher for people with dissociative disorders. Therapists should address dissociative disorders before using EMDR for trauma-related brain conditions.
Trauma can come from a single event or from prolonged circumstances, such as a life-threatening illness or time in a war zone. When multiple events occur over time, they may cause complex trauma.
Whether you’re recovering from addiction or recalling a troubled childhood, the skilled therapists at Mind Body Wellness can help. We understand the connection between EMDR and the brain and how to set up effective treatments with minimal EMDR side effects. Contact us today to schedule your first appointment.