EMDR stands for ‘Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.’ Developed by Dr. Francine Shapiro, EMDR is currently one of the most in-demand evidence-based treatments for trauma, with a large and growing body of very compelling research demonstrating its efficacy in the treatment of trauma and other mental health concerns. It is based on bilateral neural stimulation and integration. A lot of times, traumatic memories are “stuck” or “frozen” in little dissociated neural nets that can be triggered off by sensory input so that the amygdala (alarm center of the brain) and autonomic nervous system are convinced that the traumatized individual is once again in the same unsafe situation that created the trauma. Brain scans show that when a trauma is created, the amygdala and other “reptilian” areas of the lower brain are fired up to the max, while the Broca’s region of the brain (an important language center) goes dim. This seems to inhibit the traumatic event from being filed away in the hippocampus (the memory center of the brain) as a normal memory, with a narrative or a story to go with it. It remains wordless, and imprinted on the nervous system and body, waiting for the right sensory input to completely trigger it off again. This is sometimes called “bottom up hijacking,” because when a traumatized individual is faced with a trauma reminder (and they may not even be consciously aware of what it was), the lower alarm centers of the brain completely overwhelm the “higher” brain areas (the prefrontal cortex) of executive functioning, cause and effect thinking, and more sophisticated cognition.
By allowing these dissociated neural nets to be skillfully tapped and “spoken” and “felt” into, during the bilateral stimulation process (following the lead of the traumatized individual, of course, and taking it as slowly as necessary, with the desensitizing effect of the eye movements so that the process itself is not re-traumatizing), we are creating new neural networks together, allowing the trauma to be linked into the language and memory centers of the brain, and by stimulating new and enhanced connections between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic (emotional) brain, and the lower (“reptilian”/alarm center) regions of the brain, which can also enhance self-soothing ability more generally. (In a more integrated brain, when the limbic brain is fired up and we are flooded with emotion, there will be robust connections and integration with the prefrontal cortex, which can calmly observe and interface with these emotions, and even deploy plans and skills for successfully interpreting and managing them.) It is important to note that it is not necessary to go into every single detail of a traumatic event, or every single episode of a series of chronic traumas in order for this approach to work. In many ways, it is guided by the unique, innate healing process of the individual.
I like to have as many evidence-based tools in my tool belt as possible when helping people heal and recover from emotional and mental health concerns. I consider trauma to be an injury much more than a disorder. And, like a broken bone, that means it can be set, and healed. More than that, it can catalyze the development of new levels of resilience, and personal growth on the interpersonal, emotional and spiritual levels. I love that EMDR incorporates the individual’s unique healing process with body awareness, emotional literacy and the unpacking of maladaptive thought patterns and internal working models, at the individual’s own pace, and in their own way (guiding the individual towards their own healing and answers, rather than pretending that the therapist will be the source of healing and answers). As an integrative therapist, I love this, and I believe that there is complex interaction and communication constantly taking place between the brain, the autonomic nervous system, the physical, emotional and energetic body, and the deeper psyche/soul and spirituality of the individual. I have seen how EMDR sometimes even brings into the process the energetic anatomy of the individual and their trauma, and even the deeper psyche or soul of the individual. (In other words, as we enter into the healing process utilizing the EMDR protocol, we can frame the unfolding process that begins to occur as the brain healing itself, like a broken bone heals itself after being set, or we can frame the healing journey or the answers found by the individual during the process as a soul intention. In other words, “What is the soul intention underneath this struggle or dilemma?”) I am now providing EMDR in my psychotherapy practice and will be fully certified by November or December 2019.
Annalise Oatman, MA, LCSW 88254
45 Franklin St., Suite 214, San Francisco, CA 94102