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The Brain that Heals Itself: EMDR & Our Brain's Reprocessing Powers

"Trauma is any difficult experience that rises to the level of Changing the Brain."

Whether it’s through reduced functioning, hyperarousal, or changes in mood, thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors, trauma impacts how we interact with the world around us. Unfortunately, we can get so caught up in defining the minutia of “what constitutes trauma” that it can be easy to lose the forest for the trees. Simply put, trauma is a neurobiological issue with psychological consequences. Neuroscientists can now measure observable changes in the brain that are the direct result of traumatic experiences – and those changes have a considerable impact on how we perceive threats in our daily lives. As the Driftwood clinical team undergoes extensive training around EMDR protocols this summer, I was curious to learn more about why EMDR is so effective at treating trauma and a whole host of psychological issues. So I sat down with senior clinician Natalie Hisey to discuss the training she facilitated with her supervisor and EMDRIA-certified instructor, Lillian Ramey.


Natalie explained that typical memories are stored in the part of the brain called the hippocampus. In the event of a trauma or accumulation of traumas, the amygdala (responsible for our fight, flight, freeze response) overwhelms the brain. It prevents the hippocampus from properly storing difficult memories. The hippocampus serves as our memory’s receptionist, cataloging and holding events from the day during REM sleep. When memories are not filed correctly, they remain blocked or unprocessed – like a misplaced folder jammed into the wrong filing cabinet.

The result is a limbic system that reacts like it’s constantly in danger, even when the perceived threat has long passed. Logic, perspective, and clear memories take a back seat, and emotion takes the wheel. Effective trauma treatment should re-train our brain’s receptionist to store these troubling experiences in a way that doesn’t disturb normal brain function. One of the most effective and efficient ways to heal the limbic system is through EMDR therapy.


If changes in the brain characterize trauma, trauma treatment should address those brain changes. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is one of the most researched psychotherapy methods proven to help the brain recover from trauma and distressing life experiences. According to EMDR International Association, when distress from a disturbing event remains, the disturbing images, thoughts, and emotions may create an overwhelming feeling of being back in that moment or of being “frozen in time.” EMDR therapy helps the brain reprocess these maladaptive memories and allows routine healing to resume. The experience is still remembered, but the original event's fight, flight, or freeze response is resolved.

EMDR utilizes a process known as bilateral stimulation. Practitioners instruct clients to think about a target memory while tracking the therapist’s fingers from left to right with their eyes. Bilateral stimulation mimics the process that occurs during REM sleep; this side-to-side motion has been found to enhance memory reprocessing, improving the speed at which clients can recover and find peace around unimaginable pain.

EMDR therapy is broken into eight phases. The first phases involve gathering information around the memory, assessing emotional distress, and creating a safe place (a resource for calming the system back down after entering the target memory.) Then, reprocessing and desensitization occur, where the therapist and client bring up the trauma, initiate eye movement, and install a new, more positive belief associated with the memory. The final phases are about all about how the client will respond to that trauma in the future, with the goal of “turning down the volume” on the client’s emotional reactivity.


The message from EMDR is this: “Your trauma is over and can remain in the past. You are safe in the present moment.” The result is a desensitization of the specific emotional reaction and reprocessing of the memory in a more positive light. Clients can process through distress quickly and develop a robust treatment plan without needing much language to describe what’s bothering them. They are not forced to spend too much time digging around in the trauma but rather target specific emotional reactions to a perceived threat. It’s amazing how well the brain responds to EMDR – it’s as if the brain wants to heal itself, it just needs the facilitation of a skilled practitioner and a safe place to do the healing.

EMDR is appropriate across all lifespans and can help treat many mental health conditions in addition to trauma, like eating disorders, substance use disorders, and relational issues. By the end of the summer – thanks to Natalie & Lillian – Driftwood clinicians will be trained in EMDR protocols for trauma, substance use, chronic pain, and couple’s therapy. Click here to learn more about EMDR protocols and training through EMDRIA or contact admissions for more information about working with an EMDR-trained Driftwood clinician.


The Limbic System

Image courtesy of Psychosocialsomatic.