With past traumas and life stressors, sometimes negative beliefs and emotions get stuck shaping our present. We feel as if what happened last month, last year, or even ten years ago is happening to us now. Though we may not consciously connect our current feelings about a difficult situation at work to when we were in a traumatizing car accident, the same feelings of anxiety and the belief that we are not in control are still there. The fight we get in with our spouse triggers the same feelings and emotions that we experienced when we witnessed our parents’ divorce twenty years ago, and we continue to have negative emotions and beliefs about ourselves after healing from a life threatening illness. Or even a song, a scent, or an internal feeling will trigger a memory of when we were sexually abused as a child, causing us to relive the past fear, anxiety, and shame we experienced during this time.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy allows you to clear out the old memories that still hold the same power as when they actually were formed so that you don’t have to live your present life through past beliefs and past emotions. The adaptive information processing system in your brain is activated through bilateral stimulation. Naturally, this occurs every night when we are sleeping during the REM sleep cycle. Our eyes move back and forth bilaterally, stimulating the brain to sort through all the information and memories accumulated during the day. This allows new information to link up with old information, connecting and making sense of what happens to us each day and gain knowledge and information that is adaptive to us in the future.
When EMDR therapy is used in treatment, you are asked to identify the “worst of it”, the start of the memory string that has reinforced a negative belief, triggers negative emotions, and causes negative bodily responses. While you hold these images, emotions, and feelings in your mind, the eye movement in REM sleep cycle is mimicked through bilateral stimulation, either through therapist-directed eye movement or another type of bilateral sensory stimulation – alternating tapping your right and left feet or through music coming in the left side of a headphone and then the right side of your headphone. Then you just let your mind go where it is supposed to go. Sometimes it follows a chronological path, bringing up images from the moment your car made contact with the tree to the painful healing process in the hospital, and sometimes your mind jumps around, starting when you were six years old witnessing your parents fighting to when you were 28 years old and yelling at your wife for a minor infraction.
By the conclusion of therapy, EMDR can separate our beliefs and emotions about the difficult work situation from the car accident. It can allow us to make decisions in the present regarding our relationship with our spouse instead of relieving our parents’ painful divorce vicariously through our memories. When our bodies heal from a serious illness, our minds will as well through reprocessing the emotions and beliefs we experienced through this painful ordeal. Flashbacks and nightmares about past sexual abuse will dissipate leaving us with distant memories of the events. EMDR can help us heal emotionally, guiding us to find our best selves, and live happier, healthier lives.