A Brief Primer (From A Therapist)

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Last updated on October 20, 2023 by Randy Withers

Every few years, it seems like a new “revolutionary” therapy becomes popular. Its inventor will cite studies that verify its validity, stating that it is the miraculous solution that will end human suffering.

Almost inevitably, these therapies quickly lose followers and are placed on the shelf to collect dust.

However, there have been some therapies that have stood the test of time. One of them is a type of therapy called EMDR.

EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It’s about a eight stages therapy used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, phobias, and many other problems.

It is growing rapidly, with more than 100,000 therapists trained in EMDR around the world.

However, despite its popularity, no one is sure how EMDR works, leaving it open to criticism.

This article explores some of the most popular theories about how EMDR works. To benefit from this publication, it is important that you have general information about EMDR. If you need to, check out this article to learn more about EMDR and then come back and read this one.

How EMDR Works: A Brief Introduction (from a Therapist)

Is EMDR effective?

Before we talk about how EMDR works, we need to answer the question of whether it is effective. Although there are skeptics about EMDR, research strongly suggests that it is an excellent way to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.

For example, a meta-analysis of 2014 found that EMDR can significantly reduce PTSD symptoms, including depression and anxiety. In his bookovercoming your pastDr. Francine Shapirothe inventor of EMDR, stated that “more than 20 scientifically controlled studies of EMDR have demonstrated its effectiveness in the treatment of traumatic and other disturbing life experiences.”

Furthermore, the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association Both recommend EMDR as an effective treatment for PTSD.

Some of the most fascinating research on EMDR shows that it can affect the way different parts of the brain communicate with each other. In 2019, researchers used a functional MRI machine to examine the impact EMDR had on a group of trauma survivors. They found that different brain regions were more connected after EMDR treatment, and that other brain regions were less connected. These changes in connectivity likely showed that their brains were recovering from trauma. EMDR can create such drastic changes in brain functioning that some researchers describe it as “a medical procedure.”

The AIP model

We can confidently say that EMDR helps treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Now the question is why?

In an effort to explain the benefits of EMDR, Dr. Shapiro created the “Adaptive Information Processing” (AIP) Model.

Using the AIP model, Dr. Shapiro suggested that the human brain is designed to process and store the information it collects throughout the day.

Traumatic events can sometimes overwhelm the brain’s ability to process information. When these memories are not processed, they can create symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health disorders.

Let me use an example to help explain. If I asked you to remember what you had for breakfast yesterday, how would you feel? Chances are you’re feeling fine: breakfast is usually a normal part of the day. As such, your brain processes breakfast and stores it in your long-term memory.

Now, what if I asked you to remember the most traumatic event you’ve ever experienced? Unless you have overcome this trauma, you are likely to experience some distress. This is because there are elements of memory that your brain has not been able to process or store.

Over time, these memories can lead to anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms, so it’s important to process them. Using the AIP model, Dr. Shapiro suggested that EMDR somehow activates the brain’s natural ability to store memories.

So the AIP model does a great job of explaining the results we see from EMDR, but it doesn’t explain the exact mechanism by which EMDR helps the brain heal.

How EMDR works

Fortunately, this is a topic of interest among many researchers. As such, there are several plausible theories as to how EMDR works. These are three of the most popular.

1. EMDR imitates slow wave sleep

One of the most common theories about how EMDR works is that it mimics slow wave sleep (SWS). Investigation suggests that SWS plays a key role in the processing of emotional memories, Moving from the “feeling” part of the brain to the “thinking” part of the brain.

Numerous researchers suggest that the eye movements found in EMDR create brain waves similar to those found in SWS. Because SWS naturally helps the brain erase distressing memories, recreating SWS brain activity is believed to facilitate this natural healing process.

In particular, SWS occurs up to five times per night; In a typical EMDR session, eye movements are made much more frequently. This could help explain why EMDR processes memories so quickly.

Look at this image which compares EMDR with SWS. The top line shows a participant’s brain waves during eye movements, while the bottom line shows brain waves during SWS. It’s impossible to deny how similar they appear, providing further evidence that the SWS theory could be correct.

How does EMDR work?

2. EMDR Tax Working Memory

Whenever you perform a task, you must use the information you have learned throughout your life to complete it.

For example, if I ask you to tie your shoe, you will need to use your knowledge of how to tie the laces to prevent them from coming undone.

The information you use to perform tasks is called “labor memory”, and some researchers suggest that it plays a crucial role in EMDR.

During an EMDR session, the patient is asked to recall their traumatic memory with the accompanying mental images, thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. As they do so, the therapist begins to provide bilateral stimulation (BLS).

This theory of why EMDR works suggests that recalling the traumatic memory while experiencing BLS taxes the brain’s working memory. Basically, our brain can only attend to a limited amount of information at a time. While noticing the BLS, the patient is unable to pay full attention to the traumatic memory, leading to a reduction in distress.

This appointment of researchers in Switzerland summarizes this theory very well:

“Our results…suggest that recalling a traumatic memory while performing a second task would divert the individual’s attention from the recovery process and result in a reduction in vividness and emotionality, also associated with symptom reduction.”

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3. Memory reconsolidation using EMDR

A common misconception about memories is that once stored, they can never be changed. Memory reconsolidation It is the theory that, once recovered, there is a brief period during which memories can be changed.

Scientists It is widely accepted that memory reconsolidation is a real phenomenon, although the mechanisms by which it occurs are debated. Researchers also suggest that memories may play a key role in shaping mental health. disorders.

In recent years, psychologists I have been using memory reconsolidation to explain how and why certain types of therapies work. These psychologists suggest that illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder have their roots in “emotional learning”, or the emotions that correspond to specific memories. These memories are usually subconscious and those who suffer from them are unaware of their impact.

When someone becomes aware of this emotional learning, they can replace it with healthier emotional learning.

What does all this have to do with EMDR?

EMDR requires patients to recall distressing memories. According to memory reconsolidation, they are creating the opportunity for the memory to change with new emotional learning. Some researchers They even suggest that EMDR “involuntarily relies on memory reconsolidation.”

If you talk to someone who has benefited from EMDR, they will probably tell you how their traumatic memories have changed. Some people describe the memory as “smaller” or that they now see it as “black and white” in their mind. Although these comments are not research, they sound comparable to the phenomenon of memory reconsolidation.

Final thoughts

So how does EMDR work? No one knows for sure, but there are several plausible theories.

Perhaps the main takeaway from this article is that, regardless of how it works, EMDR can offer relief for PTSD. If you are struggling due to trauma, consider contacting an EMDR therapist. They can help you take successful steps toward healing.

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