Why Does EMDR Work?

Before we can look at how EMDR works, it is important for us to understand how memories are stored in the brain and how they form neural networks. A neural network is a group of brain cells (neurons) that are interconnected and that fire together. When you have difficult experiences they are maintained as maladaptive neural networks, which resulted because the brain has a limited ability to adapt, process and resolve traumatic stress.

When we learn a new skill or behavior we create a new neural network. When we repeat behaviors we strengthen that neural network. Over time it becomes automatic and habit to respond to triggers with that engrained behavior. For example, you don’t think about riding a bike after you learn how to ride, you just ride.

Our memories are patterns of neural networks. When a behavior or memory has similar elements, they connect the neural networks together. For example, images, smells, tastes, physical touch, sounds, thoughts, emotions, body sensations, beliefs, and people that are similar to a previous event may initiate a connection between the neural networks of those memories.

Different areas of our brain are more likely to hold different types of neural networks. For example, the right hemisphere of the brain often holds our negative perceptions and emotions about experiences. On the contrary, the left hemisphere holds positive experiences. We want the neural networks of our memories to connect across both hemispheres because that helps us express feelings with words and integrate both positive and negative perceptions of emotions. We also want the upper brain centers (reasoning) to integrate with the lower brain (fight/flight/freeze response) centers to help us manage impulses and develop more adaptive self-control.

Difficult experiences of traumatic memories have impaired encoding of neural networks and can either be trapped in the right hemisphere or lower part of our brain. This disconnection limits the ability for traumatic memories to integrate with positive experiences and limits their ability to accommodate new information. This results in an impairment in an individual’s ability to be emotionally flexible or cognitively constructive when triggered by reminders of difficult life events.

So how does EMDR work?

EMDR works because “EMDR Therapy changes maladaptive neural networks by connecting the traumatic memory with new information. The distressing thoughts and emotions are blended with new positive thoughts and emotions; embodied awareness allows frozen sensations in the body to resolve through healing movements/” – Arielle Schwartz.

Since traumatic memories can get stuck in the right hemisphere of the brain we need to build bridges to other areas of the brain to access resources. EMDR utilizes bilateral stimulation (right/left brain alternative processing) to link traumatic neural networks with positive state neural networks.

Specifically, EMDR incorporates a dual awareness state, where you maintain awareness of the present moment while simultaneously recalling memories of the traumatic event while doing bilateral stimulation. This links the neural network stored in the right hemisphere with positive state neural networks stored in the left hemisphere. This results in memory integration and consolidation. After processing a memory with EMDR the distress level decreases and more adaptive behavior responses develop.

It is important to understand that the field of neuroscience is new so the current understanding of why EMDR works is still in the process of being discovered. As neuroscience advances, our understanding of how EMDR works will continue to evolve.

If this way of working seems interesting to you, please feel free to contact me for a free 20 minute consultation at allison@blossomingheartcounseling.com or 503-880-7190