I recently had the opportunity to be trained in EMDR, an intervention developed to more effectively help people who have been negatively affected by a traumatic event or events. This article is my processing of how I see this intervention. So please read this article as such. It is not meant to be a scholarly journal.
The intervention is intended to diminish the emotional weight or emotional connection to the event which I will refer to as trauma. I will define trauma as any situation in which a person experiences something sufficiently negative that compromises their ability to emotionally manage the situation. Trauma can be big “T” (9/11, combat, assault, rape, etc.) or little “t” (perceived abandonment, messages of self worth, etc.). EMDR does not help a person forget about a traumatic event. The way in which EMDR helps a person process the trauma is via the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS). Here is a word picture I like to use in sessions with clients: Imagine that the impact of an emotionally traumatic event disrupted the flow of information in the brain enough to cause a “log jam.” Those logs cause diminished ability for the brain to make sense of the event, as well as the overwhelming emotions associated with the it. The result is that the emotions are not able to be processed in a healthy way or to be diminished over time, therefore remain overwhelming, vivid, and potent for long periods… even decades.
The use of BLS engages the brain’s natural ability to heal itself. If you hurt yourself your body heals itself. If the wound is more serious, your body with still try to heal but it may not do as good a job as it would if you or your doctor gave it some help (bandage, neosporin, stiches, etc.) I like to explain it like this: Strong negative emotional impact can cause the brain to “log jam” because the emotions are too intense. BLS forces your brain to shift back and forth between hemispheres which loosens the log jam, giving your brain the assistance it needs to do its job of managing the impact of the memory.
I have heard people say, “but it happened so long ago” or “I am over/past that.” For the brain the past is always part of present functioning because we use past experiences to create our thinking processes or our neurological net. Which means that it doesn’t matter how long ago something happened, especially if it is traumatic or intense, it is likely to become the road map on which our brain travels during the decision making process (which includes emotions).
Successful EMDR can weaken the log jam, diminish the intensity of the emotion related to an event or trauma, and give the person new options for how to manage the event, see themselves, and interact with the world.