What is EMDR? A Game-Changer in Healing Trauma

Jan 20, 2023

What is EMDR and how does it work? Ok, so you may already know that early childhood memories impact our beliefs about ourselves, life, and the world. Later memories of shocking or disturbing content do the same thing, and those beliefs about ourselves lie so deep in our core that they impact the way we thoughtfully and somatically (body responses) interpret our experiences onward. Those interpretations influence our feelings, moods, self-esteem, and behavior, not to mention, the condition of our muscles, the way we carry our bodies, what we do with our bodies, and what our bodies do automatically.


Have you ever felt like you know how to change your thoughts to more helpful self-talk, but frustrated that you keep having to revise that narrative over and over again? Have you ever said, “I know this is irrational, but…” or, “I know logically, that…but I just don’t feel like that’s true…?” Yeah, me too!

I want to introduce you to a therapy technique that I’ve been training in and providing. It's called “EMDR,” which stands for Eye-Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing, and it's a highly researched, effective, evidence-based trauma-focused therapy strategy that essentially unsticks stuck memories that keep replaying in some form, as if they are still somehow present--in your awareness, in your sensations, in your sense of who you are.

What’s happening in our brain?

When you go through a disturbing or physically/emotionally wounding event, the nervous system (spinal cord + brain) is so overwhelmed that the usual communication between the brain stem, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex falls apart, and realistic, adaptive meaning-making doesn’t happen like it usually does. Survival mode (fight, flight, freeze) does not take into account nuance or intellectual tact. Essentially, a traffic jam of information causes the bridge between the emotion part of the brain (limbic system) and the logic part of the brain (neocortex) to collapse, and the images of the event get stored with glitches, unmetabolized, and in the wrong file folders. Later events that remind you of scenes, people, objects, sensations, and feelings that you experienced during that original wounding event—any aspect of it—also get stored with glitches and in incorrect files, reinforcing unhelpful, disorganized information. These networked memories build up like a mountain of dirt, seemingly impossible to climb, or an enormous set of filing drawers that doesn’t allow you to access what you need to find.

This is how EMDR works: it takes disturbing memories that are stuck in the emotion center of the brain, gets this part communicating with the logic part of the brain, and replaces maladaptive material with adaptive material, ironing out and resolving the memory so that it feels like just that--a memory--that doesn't hold such an emotional charge anymore. It targets negative beliefs about the self associated with those maladaptively stored, undigested memories, that keep getting reactivated, and replaces them with positive beliefs. Basically, the dirt gets flushed out of the emotional wound. The filing system becomes orderly.

Tapestry of life.

Here’s another incredible metaphor, created by my EMDR trainer, Dr. Mara Tesler Stein:‚Äč‚Äč Life is like a tapestry, and we are weavers. We are born knowing how to weave, and we’re constantly weaving. Whether we intend to or not, we weave‚Äč through our entire lives‚Äč. We weave with the ‚Äčthreads ‚Äčwe're born with‚Äč, threads that ‚Äčwe're given, some ‚Äčthreads that we choose, and threads that are just tossed in there, that we never would have chosen if given the option. Instead of ‚Äčsmooth silk‚Äč, ‚Äčor soft cotton, we might get thrown some rough burlap or…sharp barbed wire. ‚Äč And, life goes on, and we continue to weave. ‚Äč 

‚ÄčInevitably, the barbed wire catches on everything‚Äč and snags the other threads. It tangles what’s around it ‚Äčand creates knots. It pulls on the ‚Äčother thread‚Äčs‚Äč and turns the fabric into a snarled mess.‚Äč And you keep weaving…with all the different threads you've got, and when you tug on one, even far away from the barbed wire, it's still connected down the chain. It pulls even slightly on that knot further down, and you feel the resistance, the tension. All of the threads have contact with each other and impact each other. The snagging will continue until we untangle the snarl and reweave our tapestry with smoothed out threads.

‚ÄčThis is what’s happening in the brain. ‚ÄčAnd the knotted up, snagging thread is trauma. The nervous system knows how to integrate experience, but trauma and disturbing events disrupt the process. EMDR therapy facilitates the nervous system's healing process of untangling the snarls and reweaving with updated, smoothed-out threads. It rebuilds the bridge between disconnected parts of the brain so that integration can happen. So that helpful, current information we have about the present-day can link up with the past event, we can reason with it and take perspective, and move it from timeless emotion-land into long-term memory without a fiery, electric charge.

We can’t think our way out of this one!

‚ÄčWe are creatures of meaning-making, so we are always retroactively making ourselves active in our narrative of memories of past experiences, ‚Äčeven when we were in fight/flight/freeze modes of response. It makes us feel more in control, but it's not actually true. During disturbing events, the neocortex was offline. The bridge was down between that thoughtful part of our brain and the limbic system and brainstem. The emotion center and automatic survival part of the brain were where the traumatic event lived and stayed. So, using our thoughtful, narrative prefrontal cortex to heal–such as with talking it out, challenging, and reframing our spiraling thoughts– is going to be a limited and temporary solution that will require continual repetition. Don’t get me wrong, these are powerful and helpful tools for navigating daily life. And, "I'm trying to move on, but why can't I get over it?!" you ask yourself. I get it! But it's not you. It's the maladaptively stored information that's stuck because it overwhelmed the nervous system and didn’t get integrated with logic and reason. We can't think our way out of traumatic experiences and the negative beliefs about ourselves that we constructed from them.

Trust the process. 

This is how EMDR therapy works: the process includes a therapist guiding you through bringing up an image in your mind, applying side to side stimulation (right to left eye-movements, or tapping your body back and forth across your midline), and just noticing what you notice. Your brain actually does the work that it already knows how to do, just like the nervous system knows how to heal a physical cut. You don't need to figure anything out–in fact, trying to analyze will create roadblocks!-- you just need to notice your way through the memory.

It follows a structured protocol, and the first part of the protocol focuses on teaching and learning about what it is, what it looks like, identifying specifically what we're targeting in the work, and preparing for the reprocessing by identifying positive, helpful material and developing grounding and self-soothing strategies--inner resources such as calming visualizations and mindfulness, particularly tuning into your senses, your breath, and what your body is telling you. Once that feels solid, we desensitize and reprocess the memory of focus.

This work is transformative, taking treatment to another level--actually accessing neurological material and changing it so it’s stored differently. This kind of neurological rewiring can permit and enrich physical healing when it comes to muscle tension, disconnection from one’s body, and avoidance of certain activities due to anticipated distress. This therapy technique linked with specialized physical therapy can unlock the door to lasting healing and relief. My sister and I have realized in our work, continued learning, and eager observation, that trauma work is mind-body work. Not one or the other, but the whole-self system, that’s interlocked and continuous. You are the whole system and your whole being requires love and care from all different angles. If you’re ready for it, we’ve got you at Powerful Women’s Health. -Sam


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I want to thank the following people and places for helping teach me these gems of info:

Dr. Mara Tesler Stein, Thomas Zimmerman, Morgan Rahimi, Leslie Pertz, Dr. Rachel Sugerman, Institute for Creative Mindfulness, Touchstone Institute, and EMDRIA: https://www.emdria.org/about-emdr-therapy/