Can EMDR Change Your Brain?

Why eye movement desensitization and reprocessing — or EMDR — may help treat trauma.

Up-close shot of person's eye

Traumatic experiences can etch themselves on the brain. When those internal bruises refuse to fade, this can lead to decades of suffering and emotional distress.

A therapy called EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, can help defuse the emotional and physiological effects of traumatic experiences.

“EMDR is a therapeutic approach that views problems as the result of memories that are maladaptively stored in the brain,” says psychotherapist and EMDR practitioner Roger Solomon, PhD. “These distressing events can be too much to process and get stored in the brain the same way they were input there: through emotions, thoughts, images, sensations, and beliefs that are isolated in their own neural network.”

The treatment often involves clients’ tracking a therapist’s back-and-forth finger movements; other methods, such as hand tapping and spoken prompts, may also be used.

By accessing networks in the brain where the traumatic memory is stored, the technique helps the client reprocess the information, creating new neural connections and forming a less emotionally charged impression of the experience.

Recent research has shown that EMDR therapy can treat emotional trauma more quickly and effectively than cognitive behavioral therapy, dissipating negative emotions and disturbing images.

“EMDR is seemingly simple but actually quite complex,” says Solomon, who consults with government agencies and has treated first-responders to the Oklahoma City bombing and the Sandy Hook school mass shooting.

During treatment, “a chain of associations starts to occur,” he explains. “The emotions and information that were part of the event reoccur, which can be quite intense. Simultaneously, adaptive information also starts to link in.”

The brain can then potentially rewire itself around a new perception of the trauma, allowing the body to recognize that it is no longer threatened.

“I am continually amazed at people’s resilience and ability to process,” Solomon says. “It’s amazing how the mind comes up with these adaptive resolutions.”

Thousands of professional therapists and coaches trained in EMDR now practice in the United States. You can find a certified practitioner at www.emdr.com.

This article originally appeared in “How to Change Your Brain” in the June 2020 issue of Experience Life.

is a writer and novelist in Minneapolis. He’s also the cofounder of Logosphere Storysmiths.

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