Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR)
How does EMDR work?
When we experience something, our brain creates a short-term memory of the experience in a part of our brain called the hippocampus. These short term memories are later consolidated to long term/adaptive memory in another part of our brain called the cortex.
This memory consolidation occurs naturally, during our sleep. While we are dreaming, during the period of sleep known as “rapid eye movement or REM sleep”, memories are moved out of the hippocampus, processed and stored in the area of adaptive memory in our cortex. It is the brain’s way of sorting things into filing cabinets.
With traumatic memories, however, the brain has trouble processing them and they can become stuck in the hippocampus, our short term memory storage area. When something reminds us of the memory - a glimpse, a smell, a voice or any other reminder - it can trigger strong feelings, as if we were experiencing them in the present. Our rational, thinking part of our brain becomes overwhelmed with emotion. Traumatic memories can remain stuck in the hippocampus for many years, resulting in flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, negative self beliefs and triggered emotions. Sleep can be impacted, as our brain continues to try and process the memories into adaptive memory.
EMDR therapy replicates our REM (dream) sleep, helping our brain to process the traumatic memories. During EMDR, therapists help you focus on a traumatic memory while providing bilateral stimulation. Bilateral just means one side and then the other - in EMDR this is usually moving your eyes from side to side (such as in REM sleep), but it can also be hearing a sound on each side or experiencing a light touch on each side.
Research suggests that EMDR synchronises brain activity in our cortex at the same delta frequency as slow-wave sleep. Traumatic memories are reactivated, processed and moved across to existing, adaptive memory networks. In this way they are moved from being stuck in the hippocampus, into long term memory storage, just like other, non-traumatic memories. Now when we recall those traumatic memories, we can remember what happened, but our brain knows it occurred in the past and our emotions are not triggered in the present.
EMDR is now considered the ‘gold standard’ treatment for trauma and many mental health concerns. It is colloquially referred to as REM sleep on steroids, as it supports your brain to do what it does every night when you dream during REM sleep.
If you would like to find out more, I recommend the EMDR Association of Australia website. This is a professional association where EMDR practitioners and researchers set standards for the clinical use of EMDR. Here is a link to their FAQ page:
Please feel welcome to contact me at The Counselling Space, Coffs Harbour, if you would like to see if EMDR may be appropriate for you or your child.