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What are the Effects of EMDR on the Brain?

Effects of EMDR

People experience multiple traumas and distress all over their life and deal with it themselves. Sometimes, their brain fails to process the traumatic memory, due to which people mainly suffer from Post-traumatic syndrome disorder (PTSD). 

There are many psychological therapies used to treat people suffering from PTSD and emotional distress as a result of disturbing life experiences. Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) is one such psychotherapy that helps individuals gain control over negative emotions and traumatic events.

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR):

Eye Movement desensitization reprocessing or EMDR is a psychotherapy that pairs eye movement with cognitive processing of traumatic events. Using the Adaptive Information Model accesses and processes traumatic memories and other disturbing life events and brings them into adaptive resolution. It suggests that reprocessing a disturbing memory can help in getting over that. The client identifies negative beliefs and emotions related to that traumatic incident and formulates positive beliefs.

Bilateral stimulation is involved in the process in which bilateral eye movement is used to trigger targeted trauma or memory. Bilateral stimulation may also include rhythmic taps or other movements. 

Eye movement desensitization reprocessing is used not just to treat post-traumatic syndrome disorder but also:

  • Childhood trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Personality disorder
  • Phobias
  • Dissociative identity disorder
  • As well as bipolar disorder. 

EMDR therapy and brain:

Brain activity involved in EMDR is an interesting neurological explanation of the treatment of PTSD and other traumatic and distressing emotions and memories. 

There are various theories related to the effects of EMDR on the brain. 

When a person experiences psychological trauma to survive emotional threat, the fight, flight and freeze mode is activated. The Limbic system, amygdala, and hippocampus act as emotional parts of the brain. The overactivity of these parts of the brain overshadows the logical part of the brain that is the prefrontal cortex. Also, the logical part of the brain can’t control the emotional part of the brain. Therefore, traumatic memories don’t get fully processed. Un-processed traumatic memory gets stuck in the amygdala-hippocampal complex. Incomplete processing of a traumatic event impairs a person’s ability to integrate these experiences adaptively. When this block of unprocessed memories is removed, normal psychological functioning is attained. 

Bilateral stimulation activates interhemispheric communication. Rapid as well as back and forth movement of the eye activates both hemispheres. Due to this, the visual and memory center gets activated. EMDR utilizes evoked memory to heal psychological trauma. EEG tracing shows that bilateral stimulation causes synchronization of all cortical activities. EMDR temporarily slows your over-stimulated amygdala down and synchronizes your brain waves helping you process the traumatic memory. These reactions can be seen when administered by a certified EMDR specialist but also when a patient practices on himself. Proving that the method is somewhat mechanical.

To understand how EMDR affects the brain and treats PTSD as well as other psychological disorders, it is important to understand how it works. There are considerable theories that explain brain activity during EMDR:

  • It is suggested that bilateral stimulation causes a split of focus between memory and visual stimulus. This focus-split causes haziness and vagueness of painful memories and establishes a distance from those memories. This reduces the emotional impact of traumatic memories. Moreover, the inclusion of positive therapeutic resources can create a positive emotional connection with those memories altering the negative beliefs. 
  • It is also suggested that eye movement causes an immediate decline in negative emotions and imagery vividness. It also causes increased memory accuracy and episodic retrieval. Hence, it disrupts working memory.
  • Memories are suggested to exist in the form of neural connections. Eye movements during EMDR are set for 30 seconds which helps the brain make associations and neural connections that help clients integrate distressing memories. 
  • Physiological change theory suggests that eye movements can invoke physiological changes like lowered heart rate, slow breathing, and decreased skin conductance, all of which relaxes a person. 

There are eight steps of EMDR in which, using external stimuli the brain is stimulated bilaterally to access and reprocess traumatic events and to heal PTSD. It includes,

  1. History taking:

The first phase is history taking, in which the therapist assesses the client’s history to identify the stressors, distressing and traumatic events. This helps the therapist make the treatment plan for the client, his readiness and tolerance of exposure to distressing memories, and the memory or traumatic event needs to be targeted and modified. 

  1. Preparation:

In this phase, therapists lay the groundwork for treatment and build a therapeutic connection by teaching various imagery and stress reduction techniques to the client that can be used during and after the EMDR session. 

  1. Assessment:

In this phase, the therapist as well as the client digs deeper and identifies the memory to be addressed. Visual imagery related to the targeted memory and the negative beliefs and emotions related to them are identified. 

  1. Desensitization:

In desensitization, disturbing emotions and reactions are reduced, including the physical sensation related to traumatic events. Eye movements facilitate desensitization. The client recalls negative and distressing memory while imagining positive associations. 

  1. Installation:

This step focuses on installing positive beliefs related to the identified memories. Through this step, PTSD is majorly treated. 

  1. Body Scan:

This step focuses on related emotions and physical sensations. It is a meditative technique in which the body is scanned from head to toe to check the presence of unpleasant physical sensations. These physical sensations are noticed to further process the EMDR. It’s a comparison to check the effectiveness of EMDR by comparing the presence of physical sensation before and after the EMDR sessions.

  1. Closure:

It’s the end of a session in which the client is stabilized using several self-control techniques. Also, clients are asked to use taught techniques in the preparation phase. Moreover, the client is also asked to keep the record between two sessions, including all the negative experiences the client may experience. 

  1. Reevaluation:

This phase involves the review of the whole therapy, including the effectiveness of the therapy. It examines all the progress, including history, treatment plan, therapy as well as plans. 

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