All living bodies are predisposed towards healing. If we have a cut or a bruise or even a sprained ankle, our bodies will usually be able to repair themselves, whether or not we understand how. Sometimes, with more serious injuries, our bodies need help to start the healing process – wounds need to be cleaned; stitches, splints or plaster-casts may need to be applied; physical therapy may be necessary. Yet even with all the astounding facilitation that modern medicine provides, it is still our own bodies that do the actual healing.
It is a long held belief that psychological wounds take much longer to heal than physical wounds. Bruising sustained during an assault may disappear within a month, while the memory of that assault and associated fear may remain with a person for a lifetime. Yet treatment with EMDR suggests that this does not have to be the case. The brain too, it seems, is predisposed to heal itself as quickly as the body does – but it some cases it needs help facilitating the healing process. EMDR provides that help.
The brain’s information processing system
The brain is such a complex organ and there is much that we do not understand about it. But we do know that sleep is highly important to our wellbeing, and that there are different cycles of sleep. One of these cycles is known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Research suggests that this is the brain’s means of processing, filing and storing information for later retrieval. Indeed, several studies on both humans and animals have shown that if a subject is deprived of REM sleep after learning a new skill, the skill will no longer be retained*. In short, it seems that all the information and experiences of our everyday lives are processed and integrated into our overall life story during REM sleep – whether we remember dreaming or not.
The problem of trauma
Yet some data is too disturbing or upsetting to be properly processed by REM sleep – which is often the cause of nightmares that wake us before processing is finished. Such data can include major traumas – such as a violent assault, a car accident or a hurricane – or it can include a series of smaller life events that serve to undermine our sense of wellbeing, security and peace with the world. Other data never actually makes it to the Thalamus – the part of the brain responsible for taking all of our sensory information and weaving it into an integrated, cohesive experience. Instead, the data exists in the form of unconnected, fragmented images, sounds or sensations that occurred right before the traumatic event, which become the “cues” that alert the brain to potential danger in the future. If one of these cues is triggered by something similar, the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations associated with the past can come flooding back, causing us to overreact to the current situation.
In many cases, we may not associate the original event with what is happening in the present, but will find ourselves suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness or fear. We may react in ways that are inappropriate and damaging – by “losing it” with an incompetent boss, a rude child or an unsupportive partner – not understanding why they have such an effect on us. We may find ourselves paralyzed with fear by the thought of public speaking, flying or visiting a doctor’s office. Someone in our lives might seem to bring out the worst in us, causing us to behave in ways that we dislike but can’t seem to do anything about. Any of these situations could be the result of unprocessed, improperly stored data from our past that needs reprocessing.
What EMDR does
By using eye movements that mimic REM sleep, EMDR stimulates the brain’s natural processing mechanism so that the fragments of disturbing material from the past can be accessed, processed and integrated into a cohesive experience and then into the overall life story. In the case of a recent, single incident trauma such as a mugging or a hurricane that occurred in the past couple of months, the disturbance can usually be cleared up within a few sessions of EMDR. When there are a number of traumatic incidents, or the same trauma was repeated multiple times (as in the case of physical or sexual abuse), EMDR therapists create a “target sequence plan” that lists all of the traumatic events and memories to be covered in the course of therapy. Generally, by starting with the first chronological event on the list and moving to the worst, the disturbance level of all of the memories on the plan will be brought down significantly, again enabling improvements relatively quickly.
At the end of treatment with EMDR, memories still remain, but feel distant and inconsequential. Most importantly, they are no longer associated with the emotions and bodily sensations that can be so debilitating in the present, and the cues that caused the over-reaction will be desensitized. Nightmares and flashbacks should clear up all together, and it’s not unusual for clients to report a significant decrease in physical ailments such as aches and pains, coughs, colds and allergies. Most importantly, clients typically find they have a new sense of peace with the world and with themselves which their loved ones can’t help but notice.
*Karni, A., et al. (1992), cited by Shapiro F. and Silk Forest, M. (2004). EMDR: The Breakthrough Eye Movement Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Trauma. New York, NY: Basic Books, 92.