Eye Movements and Healing: Understanding the Mechanisms of EMDR Therapy

Trauma doesn’t come from one source; it can come from childhood experiences, relationships that ended with betrayal or cruelty, sudden job loss, a horrific event, etc. We’re often taught to toughen up and push past our pain. Instead, we mask it by self-medicating with survival mechanisms that get us through one day only to hold us back the next. However, that’s not a sustainable way to approach trauma. In fact, it can worsen the effects.

So what can you do to overcome trauma? What treatments are there to help you heal?

Today, we’re going to talk about EMDR therapy and how eye movement can unlock your ability to move past trauma.

What Is EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy is an innovative form of therapy developed in the 1980s by Francine Shapiro. It therapy began as a method for treating PTSD but has expanded to be used in helping clients conquer a wide variety of issues, including addiction, anxiety, and depression.

At the heart of EMDR therapy is the theory that our minds are inclined toward self-repair and that trauma results from memories that get stuck in our processing system. It’s an action-oriented, scientific approach to therapy that treats trauma as a physical process of the brain, which can be healed.

Implicit and Explicit Memory

Our brains are built to process memories by sorting them into different categories—implicit and explicit. We can recall explicit memories with conscious effort—facts and figures—details about the house we grew up in, or the route home from school. In contrast, implicit memories are those that we remember instinctively. They’re linked to our fight or flight instinct, and tasks learned through repetition.

close up of person's eyeWhile you can easily recall explicit memories, implicit memories are slippery. External stimuli such as a smell in the air, or the way someone touches our shoulder, triggers them. Sometimes it’s as simple as the tone in someone’s voice. We can’t control what triggers implicit memories, but our bodies are always on alert to pull them to the surface. Those memories are old wounds that live physically in the brain, causing anxiety, depression, and countless other symptoms—but they can be healed.

Bilateral Stimulation and Healing

EMDR therapy relies on rapid movements of the eyes to achieve bilateral stimulation of the brain. That rapid right-left movement lights up areas of the brain reserved for implicit memory—deeply held, emotionally charged memories linked to past trauma. As a result, during EMDR therapy we’re able to access those memories consciously.

During an EMDR session your therapist will work with you to identify and access traumatic memories that unconsciously influence your behaviors and beliefs. Those memories are often linked to an intense fight-or-flight reaction that we felt as they formed. But when we access them during EMDR therapy we can do so in a safe environment, free from judgment or danger, and engage with those memories in a new way. This is how EMDR allows us to heal.

Remember, our brains are inclined toward self-repair. But those implicit memories are a self-defense mechanism. They are charged with emotion, and easily triggered as our bodies try to protect us from danger.

By accessing those memories in a safe space, we can move them from implicit to explicit storage. Suddenly, they aren’t so sensitive to the touch. We reclaim our memories, heal our wounds, and put our ghosts to rest.

Schedule a Consultation

If you’re struggling to find a therapeutic solution that works for you, consider scheduling a consultation to explore EMDR therapy. Reach out today so we can talk and determine whether EMDR might work for you.