Many people have heard of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and know just enough to request it. However, I’m a huge fan of transparency and I think it’s helpful for everyone in the room to have a basic understanding of what we’re after when we’re doing trauma work. There are many wonderful descriptions of EMDR, like this one that doesn’t need any improvement, so I will pass on providing a full description.
That said, many basic principles of EMDR are helpful for anyone with an interest in trauma, and therapy in general. I think this is true of any therapy*, so I wanted to started this “5 things about” series to introduce different models and pieces of that can be helpful to trauma survivors and clinicians alike.
Trauma is stored in the body
Rape survivors may find that positions during sexual activity suddenly result in a trauma response, survivors of military ambush find themselves reflexively attacking people walking up behind them. We can also train our bodies to respond reflexively to different circumstances in sports, combat or self-defense. It makes sense, then, that trauma would be stored as another type of circumstance that requires a reactive response. There are several types of trauma therapies that use somatic awareness and then discharge to work with trauma memories and EMDR is one of them.
What memory networks are like
Memories are linked together in networks, and these networks are formed by emotions. So when you have an experience as a child that is very humiliating (and I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t), it makes an impression and every experience afterward that feels the same way gets added to the network.
When processing trauma, we can then work backward from a current trigger (occasionally a body position) to the other memories in the network and often all the way back to the origin memory. It’s often surprising what memories are in the network, since they may have different participants and settings than the more recent memories, and we’re used to things being stored that way, e.g. “school memories,” or “family memories.”
Trauma memories usually involve a false belief
I’m no expert in linguistics, but I know that the study of how language impacts our brain and who we are is an entire field of work. Language is how we understand things, for the most part. So it makes sense that these memory networks composed of emotions can be identified by the core belief attached to them. So the humiliation network described above has the belief, “I’m a failure,” or “I’m not good enough” attached to it.
Trauma is an event or memory that wasn’t processed properly
This is covered more thoroughly in this previous post. Basically, trauma memories are really overwhelming and cannot be deconstructed, assessed and sorted through the way that non-trauma memories are. Instead, the whole thing gets filed away, but that means we’re storing a bunch of unnecessary stuff, which gets dragged out when triggered, or avoided, and leaves us on edge against future threats
Reprocessing involves installing correct beliefs
But EMDR goes a step further than exposure therapies. While those simply “desensitize,” EMDR reprocesses the experience of the even to imbue it with new meaning. So “I’m not good enough,” becomes “I am enough,” and this new belief is completely internalized in a way that cannot be achieved by straight cognitive-based therapies.
*that is, therapies that are accepted by the mainstream. There are countless therapies out there, and some of them are widely criticized, little known nonsense or illegal.