Your Brain on EMDR, Chapter One

Why EMDR Works to Resolve Trauma and Calm Anxiety

Recently, I attended a workshop in Dallas presented by Uri Bergmann, a psychologist who specializes in the neurobiology of trauma and EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. I found this workshop so helpful because Dr. Bergmann took a hugely complex physical and psychological process and walked us through it, step-by-step, putting language and pictures to a bunch of invisible brain functions I take for granted every day in my work.

Here’s a rough list of ideas I picked up about the brain/body.

  1. PTSD, Personality Disorders, Panic and Anxiety, Depression, and Everything in Between = Disorders of Linkage. Linkage between brain cells (and between groups of brain cells, or networks), that is. Some linkages get stuck and overused – while others never get formed.
  2. Stressful and confusing events interfere with the formation of new, more helpful, networks of (linkages between) brain cells.
  3. Distressing incidents often get frozen in time in their own neural networks – unable to connect with other neural networks with new or adaptive information that could moderate or change the disturbing memory.
  4. When a sensory element (picture, smell, sound) triggers the memory of an old, distressing incident, you might not realize why you suddenly feel bad (e.g., want to run away or eat a whole Bundt cake).
  5. All emotion is body sensation – but you might not realize you even have a body sensation to go with your sadness or anger or fear.
  6. Beliefs, images, “feelings,” and sensations (emotions) = the building blocks of consciousness.
  7. Memory = the electrical firing of a network of brain cells in the absence of the original stimulus (the thing you’re remembering).
  8. Brain cells that fire together (in a network) wire together. Thus, the neural network that always gets triggered by a particular tone of a person’s voice or a particular season of the year, etc. Sensory stimuli become a trigger for repeated emotional (physiological) reactions.
  9. “Memories” aren’t stored anywhere as a whole. What’s in storage is an encrypted map of electrical firings of neural networks that produce visual images, body sensations/emotions, and beliefs/thoughts.
  10. PTSD is a human condition. Distressing incidents ignite our nervous systems. Period.

All of this happens automatically, reflexively, outside our conscious awareness. All soldiers, all rape victims, all survivors of child abuse, all survivors of sudden, devastating loss, have some form of post-traumatic stress. Sometimes that stress takes the shape of an “anger problem.” Sometimes it looks like an addiction to alcohol or overeating or cigarettes or pot-smoking. Sometimes it looks like a severe depression or an inability to be close to people. Sometimes it looks like panic attacks and problems with eating or sleeping.

But all these signs and symptoms come from the same processes in the brain/body.

Enter EMDR Therapy.

So you come into your therapist’s office and she leads you through a focused assessment process. Then she leads you through something called, bilateral stimulation. Side-to-side eye-movements, or gentle buzzers alternating a pulse in your hands, or maybe a back-and-forth bell tone in your ears. Your therapist asks you now and then, “What do you notice?” You say whatever you notice and your therapist writes it down and says, “Go with that.” And more eye-movements.

What’s happening behind your eyeballs?

EMDR therapy jump-starts the nervous system to metabolize distressing information that has been frozen in its original neural network. How? By inviting the hemispheres of your brain to communicate with each other. Information on the right side mixes with information on the left, and vice-versa. Emotional information blends with adult logic. Body sensations blend with new feelings of safety. Negative beliefs about yourself blend with compassion for a younger you.

And new neural networks are born!

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