What is EMDR therapy?

December 13, 2019 | Michael Burrows

Traumatic memories can come in many forms.

From classic life-threatening or unwanted sexual events, to more subtle events that nonetheless shape how we perceive ourselves.

These memories are stored in such a way that they can be ‘triggered’ which causes us to re-experience the contents of the memory.

This most often involves feeling the emotions, the body state, from that time.

Be that embarrassment, fear, hopelessness, terror, anger.

We experience the emotions from that stored memory, plus any from the situation we’re currently in on top of that.

A compounded emotion effect.

It’s one reason why we can feel more emotion than is warranted for a situation.

We can have the whole memory triggered, a full flashback, where we experience the sights the sounds, we’re fully back there and in danger once more.

When this starts happening, you may find yourself trying to avoid being triggered to get some reprieve from being sent back to the worst moments of your life.

Avoiding particular noises, situations or people to avoid being triggered.

This is an understandable reaction, but it also restricts your life and it won’t really stop the flashbacks from being triggered.

You probably already know this on some level.

There is good news.

You can reprocess these problematic memories. So they don’t bother you any more.

This is where EMDR comes in.

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation with Reprocessing.

A mouthful that even Dr. Francine Shapiro, the Psychologist who came up with EMDR more than 30 years ago, would change to straight ‘Reprocessing therapy’.

It’s a technique for opening-up problematic memories and having them reprocessed by the prefrontal cortex so they can be re-stored with a new meaning about you as a person and in a format that means they are no longer able to be triggered.

And, it’s considered the Gold standard therapy worldwide for accomplishing this.

With huge amounts of research to back this up.

I’m going to tell you a bit more about what EMDR is and how it works on traumatic memories.

First, we need to take a walk down memory lane.

Memories are usually stored in the Hippocampus temporarily and then with the help of the frontal lobe, these memories are processed during REM sleep.

This is when your brain goes through your memories of the day and takes whatever lessons it needs from those events, then it drops the unnecessary extra sensory information.

In this way, Episodic memory is converted into Semantic memory.

Episodic memories contain information from all the senses, what you could see, hear, smell, taste, touch. As well as how you felt internally.

Semantic memory is memory that has been coded by meaning.

If we just stored everything as episodes, it would be like watching Netflix or YouTube with no titles, description, or search function.

Just a randomized jumble of shows.

You’d never be able to find anything in your head and you’d be useless at pub quizzes.

Once the meaning has been determined by the frontal lobe, the memory is stored across the brain, but with tags for approximate date and category.

This way, if you need to recall who won the football world cup in 2014, you can bring this up.

This isn’t always immediate and that’s why you can get the, “Oh yeah! I remember now!” Two days too late.

Without this processing time in REM sleep to get our memories straight and figure out what meaning to take about ourselves from these events, we get memory gaps and tend to get increased anxiety and depressed mood.

If you’ve ever wondered why dreams can be a weird amalgamation of stuff you watched, read and did during the day, this may be why.

Sometimes they just seem to be processing things on a purely emotional basis.

Like the brain goes, “Hmmm, I felt this anxious today… what would cause that level of anxiety?... Maybe zombies? Yes, this feels about right! Maybe being chased… a few more zombies… Yes, that’s the exact feeling!”

It could create a falling dream, or legs pumping but not going anywhere dream. As we try to make sense of our emotions.

Now, this memory storage process can go awry.

When something distressing is happening, your midbrain can send the sensory info back to the Thalamus for a replay.

To try to figure out what went wrong.

And then this memory gets stored elsewhere in its full sensory episodic state.

This can then be triggered when something that is in some way similar occurs.

You saw a car accident and now ambulance sirens trigger the memory.

These raw unprocessed memories have no timestamp, so the re-experience feels like it’s sensory information of what’s happening right now.

When multiple trauma events occur, like in complex trauma, these memories form a network.

When one is triggered, this can set-off all of them, causing a strong emotional reaction.

Some researchers consider trauma or PTSD to be a disorder of memory.

EMDR utilizes what’s called bilateral stimulation to stimulate the same state as during REM sleep.

This activates the prefrontal cortex.

Then the memory is thought about to activate the memory network, and the memory is processed by the prefrontal cortex bit-by-bit.

Bilateral stimulation is when your focused attention is moved from side to side, one hemisphere to the other.

This is usually done visually and is similar to the rapid eye movement that characterizes REM sleep.

This bilateral stimulation is done in little doses with the therapist checking in in-between.

People report a wide range of experiences during this process: shifting body sensations, visual depictions, progressive analytical thoughts, even new details about the memory.

And the distress that came with the memory reduces.

This reaches the end of a line of processing and the person is brought back to the original memory to process another line of meaning.

The distress and body sensations fall away and the negative meaning people take about themselves: “I’m helpless”, “I’m worthless”, get reprocessed to something more helpful.

The time this process takes for each memory varies widely between people and between memories from minutes, to many hours.

As long as you’ve got a therapist you gel with and this therapy is working for you, it is incredibly worthwhile.

I want to say, that traumatic memories have developed a bit of a reputation for being really dramatic. And they can be.

They can also be more mundane, with far ranging effects you may not realise are from this kind of problematic memory.

You’ve probably had the experience of thinking back on an embarrassing situation and have re-experienced your face flushing, your heart rate going up, a cringe working-its-way up your body.

This is an raw episodic memory that’s been triggered.

You’re experiencing your body state from that time.

Along with the belief about yourself that formed or was reinforced at that time.

That you’re unlikeable, talentless, or hopeless.

It’s these stuck beliefs that can reverberate into the rest of our lives, robbing us of our self-esteem.

Either in particular areas, like public speaking, or wide ranging.

I find that when these memories are triggered, we can often re-experience only the emotions, the body state.

As people expect a full visual flashback, these emotional memory triggers can go unrecognized for what they are.

As with full flashbacks, these can cause us to react defensively to others, becoming angry, or sad, or anxious.

Most of the people I’ve seen for EMDR therapy used it to process these kinds of memories.

Memories spanning childhood, and beyond. That provide evidence that we are weak, or useless, or unlovable.

These form core beliefs, and influence our daily thoughts, which can get harsh with us in a way that we would never treat other people.

Reprocessing these memories and associated beliefs about self, enables us to go from viewing ourselves very negatively, to being able to be a kinder and less reactive version of ourselves.

I hope you’ve learned a bit more about EMDR therapy today. What it is and how it works to reprocess traumatic memories.

If you got something out of this, please give the video a Like.

If you have one take-away from the video, I’d love for it to be that there is hope.

Therapy with the right person can be awesome and is truly life changing.

If you’re struggling with any kind of trauma and negative self-beliefs, invest in this.

Invest in yourself.

I don’t know of anything more worth it than good therapy!