I am excited to share today my very first guest blogger, Janet Bayramyan, MSW. She is a wonderful clinician with extensive experience working with adults on trauma, addiction, and intimacy issues. Here is her very informative post on EMDR and what it would look like to use it in therapy. Happy Reading!
As a mental health therapist, I used to be the biggest skeptic when it came to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) therapy. EMDR involves the movement of the eyes back and forth in what’s called bilateral stimulation. Earlier in my career, I thought to myself ‘How can moving eyes back and forth help heal someone from trauma and minimize anxiety?’ Luckily what changed my opinion is in my own experience with EMDR as a client. I can now say that I successfully drank the EMDR Kool-Aid.
Accessing Beyond the Pre-frontal Cortex
I am a big believer in talk therapy, and feel as though this is a necessary part of mental health treatment. We need talk therapy to build a positive relationship with our therapists, and verbally share the information we need to share. Thought process occurs in the pre-frontal cortex but what’s so missed with talk therapy and trauma is that trauma is stored beyond the prefrontal cortex. Trauma is stored in our nervous system. Trauma additionally is stored in our limbic system, the mammalian part of our brain. This part of the brain is where our survival mechanism exists (fight, flight, and freeze) and information and experiences get translated into emotional responses. This occurs beyond the frontal lobe. And that’s why EMDR therapy works. It’s a non-talk therapy where you don’t need very many words in this intervention. You actually access more body, and somatic experiences through the mammalian part of the brain.
Role of the Eye Movements
EMDR attempts to mimic REM sleep during the intervention process. Therapists typically, in a formal sequence of EMDR therapy, instruct the client to move their eyes back and forth for a period of time, in relation to a particular traumatic experience. The point of the eye movements are to mimic REM sleep, the most restorative time during sleep. This is where cellular regeneration occurs, and this is where short term to long term memories get transferred in the hippocampus. So the point of this exercise is to allow for an unconscious memory, core belief, fear, body memory, or really, whatever was stored in the memory network to come to surface in conscious memory for healing and re-defining. The brain has been made to heal itself, however a traumatic experience prevents the brain from fully healing. A traumatically stored memory is stored in an isolated bubble of an experience, which means that the sight, thoughts, smells, emotions, and feelings get frozen in time. Therefore, the past is the present, according to the brain. In addition, the developmental age with which the traumatic event occurred is stored in the brain. Hyperarousal as well as hypoarousal freeze time and space, which can mean that external events that are similar to the past trauma can trigger the same reaction from the time of the developmental age. How we think of ourselves get frozen at the time of the trauma. So what I’m trying to say here is if you experienced some form of trauma at age 7, a part of your brain stays about 7 years old as a survival mechanism for you.
My Own Experience With EMDR
In my own personal experience with EMDR therapy, I was astonished. After bilateral stimulation (my eyes moving back and forth), all of these memories and thoughts came forward that I hadn’t thought about in many years. What I’m describing here was my brain was reprocessing a past memory. Additionally, some of these thoughts were thoughts that I had never known existed in my conscious brain. I had conscious access to a new part of my brain, the part that stored and froze my past pain. I also had access to the negative beliefs that were stored in those places. This therapy is also not for the faint of heart. You have to be willing to think and feel distressing things, while handling the intensity of those memories. If you’re interested in exploring this, you’ll need to find a really skilled therapist who will prepare you and who will guide you. EMDR is not just eye movements. There’s a comprehensive format that therapists follow. It’s not recommended to jump right into this therapy either, especially the bilateral eye movements. Of course every case is different, however I would caution people to start bilaterals right away because you need to learn how to manage your triggers, and learn how you will manage and take care of yourself when negative thoughts and challenging memories come forward. You have to learn how to calm down your nervous system, you have to learn how to manage emotions and anger.
It took me a year of talk therapy to even be open to this, because I really needed to establish trust with my therapist, and I also needed a reality check. While I had a lot of intellectual insight, my behaviors weren’t changing. The adult part of me was not connected to the child part of me. Much of my symptoms were not improving, and through just talk, it turned into venting and re-exploring the same issues over and over. My relationships and my challenging experiences in present day, as well as how I reacted to those experiences were all connected to my challenging past in early childhood. Remember, trauma freezes the mammalian part of the brain, and often freezes people at that time of their development when the trauma occurred. How I reacted in my early years, was much of how I was reacting today. And thus, my early past needed to be looked at with EMDR.
The other beauty with EMDR is that it points to the psyche’s incredible gift and drive to wholeness and health. The brain knows exactly what to do. By storing the trauma in an old memory network, it’s helping people survive that trauma. EMDR helps get the brain out of survival mode. And the brain helps us to connect to our compassion, wisdom, and empowerment, our true core selves. In EMDR, the brain helps from moving from a distressing emotion to an adaptive resolution. It’s quite magical.
If you’re looking for an EMDR therapist, you can find either EMDR trained therapists or EMDR certified therapists on www.emdria.org.