How Does EMDR Work?
No one knows how any form of psychotherapy works neurobiologically or in the brain. However, we do know that when a person has experienced trauma, it is stored in their brain in what amounts to a biological alarm system. This alarm system's job is to keep us alive. In the primitive bush, threats were often physical- predatory animals, predatory humans, and natural disasters. Reacting fast was critical to survival. Our alarm system is more quick than accurate. We have a natural bias to exaggerate threat. Better to run away from a kitty cat you mistake for a tiger, then wait a fraction of a second and be wrong. The biological alarm instantly changes our body chemistry to mimic what it was during the original trauma. Why? Our original response worked because we're still alive- the gold standard in the bush.
An important rule in the bush was "if something bad happened once it can happen again." Our already sensitive biological alarm is very good at becoming even more sensitive to threat; more quickly reactive. Once more sensitive it has a tendency to stay there. Better safe than sorry,
Now let's look at our biological alarm system in the present era. It values speed over accuracy, so it is prone to make mistakes! It believes if something bad happened once, it is likely to happen again. React quickly or lose. Yet, in reaction, we can actually become less intelligent. The blood in our "thinking" frontal lobes shifts back to the part of the brain that controls physical movement so we can fight, run, or even surrender more quickly and efficiently. This causes overreactions to modern, non-physical, interpersonal threats. Our biological alarm system is so fast and so powerful, we easily get swept away to repetitive, inflexible response patterns without even knowing it! For example, anger is less about being accurate than it is about gaining a competitive advantage- great in the bush but not so great when people have to cooperate under stress in modern families and modern offices. People can get stuck in loops of anger, fear, and depression (hopelessness).
EMDR helps us get unstuck. It appears to have a direct effect of turning on our ability to think while actually in an emotional reaction. In our work together, we call up the old negative emotional reaction, and with EMDR, the blocked information processing is resumed, the client realizes the threat is in the past and that the biggest problem they are experiencing is the emotional reaction that gets triggered when the memory is activated. So following a successful EMDR session, a person no longer relives the images, sounds, and feelings when the event is brought to mind. You still remember what happened, but it is (often much) less upsetting. Many types of therapy have similar goals. However, EMDR appears to be similar to what occurs naturally during dreaming or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Therefore, EMDR can be thought of as a physiologically based therapy that activates an inner ability to calm disturbing memories in a new and less distressing way.