How Eye Movement Desensitizing and Reprocessing Works.
The amazing thing about eye movement desensitizing and reprocessing (EMDR) is that the brain and body do all the work. The mind is not actively involved. There is no therapy per se, performed by the EMDR therapist. Reprocessing frees something in the mind/brain to activate new images, feelings and thoughts. The life force emerges to create new possibilities for the future.
FLASHBACK: Over ten years ago in a Primetime Alcoholics Anonymous meeting I witnessed the group leader “Bill” use a much simplified version of getting to the root of trauma. The memory association was done without the eye movement or any attempt at reprocessing the traumatic images.
A.A. group members love to discuss the problems in their lives. For example a problem in a current relationship. Boy meets girl on the A.A. campus.
“Jane” complained that her boyfriend “Joe” was mean to her and unfaithful to their intimate relationship. Jane said her feelings were hurt and she was depressed because all men cheated on her. Bill then asked when in her life she had ever felt the same hurt feeling. Jane said that her father made her feel the same way. Jane’s father cheated on her mother. Therefore, Bill reasoned, her relationship with her father was the reason she continued to enter into relationships with men who were hurtful to her. Jane was simply continuing her continual and ongoing life pattern of entering into relationships that duplicated her relationship with her father.
Bill did not reprocess or reprogram the trauma, he only presented the pattern of choosing the wrong man that Jane engaged in. The amazing thing is that this was done in a small group with twenty other people watching. It was painful for Jane to experience her unhealed emotions and it was painful for me to sit there and watch her. Jane was not very open minded about the revelation that she had a pattern of consistently choosing the wrong men. He pattern was obvious to me. I was wishing that Bill would do this type of analysis with me. However, Bill only gave his deep focus and energy to the women in our group.
So I eventually manifested true reprocessing and healing in my life ten years later with EMDR therapy from a professional clinician.
EMDR takes the process much further than Bill did at the A.A. meeting, starting with choosing her earliest childhood image of the trauma
The EMDR therapist would ask Jane what the earliest image of her father cheating on her mother was that came to her mind. “My mom and dad were in the kitchen arguing about him not coming home until late.” The therapist does not further engage the traumatic image as in traditional talk therapy. He merely instructs the client, “Good, now hold that kitchen image.” The therapist then moves his finger back and forth in front of her eyes and asks her to follow his finger while she thought about of the image of her parents arguing in the kitchen.
All the therapist does is say, “Good, uh-huh.” After a minute he stops moving his finger and says, “Okay, now take a deep breath.” He then inquires, “What is happing now.” Jane responds, “I see myself as a teenager with my first boyfriend and am experiencing how sad he always made me feel.” The therapist simply says, “Good, now go with that image,” as he resumes moving his finger back and forth again.
After a minute he stops and again says, “Okay, now take a deep breath. What do you notice now?” “I see myself as a young adult with the first and only boyfriend I had who treated me nice and did not cheat on me. I felt that I did not deserve him.” “Good, go with that.”
The imagination enables reprograming
The therapist resumes moving his finger back and forth. “Okay, stop, now take a deep breath. What happens next?” Jane makes her reprocessing break through by stating, “I see myself with this new man who I feel good about want to go out with. He is a nice guy who makes me happy because I feel that he would never be mean to me or cheat on me.” “Good, go with that.” The therapist resumes moving his finger back and forth. “Okay stop, take a deep breath, what comes up now?” “I see my future self in a perfect relationship with a new boyfriend and I feel really good. I feel that I am good enough for him.”
Closing and reprocessing the traumatic memory
The therapist then asks Jane to bring up the original memory that the session started with, her parents arguing about her father’s cheating. He asks her, to hold that memory and begins moving his finger in front of her eyes again. “Okay, stop, take a deep breath, what happens now? “I see myself as a little girl but I don’t feel so bad anymore, it is just a memory from the past.” The therapist says, “Okay, go with that.” He resumes moving his finger back and forth. “Okay stop, take a deep breath, what’s going on now?” “I see myself in a perfect relationship with a tall, dark, handsome man that makes me feel really good about myself. I deserve to be happy in life.”
Gaining completion and control over trauma The life force emerges to create new possibilities for the future.
With the help of EMDR Jane was able to integrate her memories of her trauma and call on her imagination to help her lay them to rest, arriving at a sense of completion and control. She did so with minimal input from her therapist and without any discussion of the particulars of her experiences. The therapist never questions the accuracy of her memories. Jane’s experiences were real to her. The therapists job is to help her deal with them in the present. Reprocessing frees something in the mind/brain to activate new images, feelings and thoughts. The life force emerges to create new possibilities for the future.
Similar to the rapid eye movement (REM) of dream sleep, EMDR has to do with your brain, not your mind
Traumatic memories exist as split-off, unmodified images, sensations and feelings. The remarkable thing about EMDR is its apparent capacity to activate a series of unsought and seemingly unrelated sensations, emotions, images and thoughts in conjunction with the original memory. This way of reassembling old information into new packages may be just the way we integrate ordinary, nontraumatic day-to-day experiences.
EMDR may also be similar to the way dreams keep replaying, recombining, and reintegrating pieces of old memories for months and even years. Dreams constantly process the subconscious images that determine what our waking minds pay attention to. And perhaps even more relevant to EMDR, in REM sleep we activate more distant associations that in either non-REM sleep or the normal waking state. It has to do with your brain, not your mind.