From the moment the memory occurs, the vehicle transporting it will pull onto the road and begin the journey through the brain. Sometimes however, the passenger of the vehicle (a traumatic memory) is unruly and thrashes about in the backseat causing the transport to crash and become stuck. This memory is then stuck in a certain area of the brain where it has the greatest outburst, the limbic system. The limbic system controls a variety of functions such as emotion, behavior, motivation, and long-term memory. With a traumatic memory stuck in the limbic system it begins to affect this area of the brain in various aspects. The memory wants to leave but it is stuck and begins to lash out. It begins to cause havoc upon the emotions of the brain. Which in turn trigger behaviors and effect the motivations of the person. It is a vicious cycle that comes and goes and keeps repeating since it is lodged in the long-term memory area of the brain. This memory over time is just an episodic nightmare that the brain has on repeat that just triggers the same painful emotions each time it is replayed in the mind.
This is the idea behind Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR operates under the assumption that traumatic and dysfunctional memories stored in our limbic system. While there they are episodic in nature and when recalled can trigger a rash of negative emotions and behaviors. The goal of EMDR Therapy is to get the trauma ridden memories out of the limbic system and move them to the neocortex. It is in the neocortex that these past events will no longer rule our emotions, as upon arrival to the neocortex the episodic memory takes the form of a semantic memory. Semantic memory is a learned experience, not tied to a specific event. By releasing the memory from the traumatic event that occurred and making it a learning experience, a person becomes free from the influence of the trauma. But how does it work? How can a person suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other traumatic events be able to transition memory to rational thought?
In 1989, Francine Shapiro, developed Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. She came up with the idea over a decade prior while on a walk. She found through chance that by moving her eyes side-to-side, she was able to remove negative thoughts from her mind. Over the next several years she spent time researching, studying, and developing what would one day become EMDR therapy. This new form of therapy involved visual, tactic and auditory stimulation to induced therapist directed eye movement. These movements brought on by change lights, tapping, and sounds direct the client to move their eyes in certain directions and times. Shapiro believed that by accessing the traumatic memory and utilizing her techniques, the memory can be processed and become informative and live on as an experience as opposed to a triggering, emotionally driven event that keeps being recalled unintentionally. A successful EMDR session will lessen the distress of the client and bring about a resolution to the traumatic memory.
Today, the American Psychiatric Association recommend EMDR as an effective treatment of trauma. The Department of Defense even recommends the use of EMDR for combat veterans suffering from PTSD as part of their treatment plan. While it has been around since the last 80’s, this form of therapy has become increasingly popular as there have been more and more practitioners in recent years. The success in the field of psychotherapy in terms of results has allowed EMDR to grow into an evidence-based treatment for PTSD. One area we have seen EMDR used more frequently is in the field of substance abuse treatment. It is well known that many addicts have a co-occurring disorder in addition to their substance use disorder. The link between drug and alcohol addiction and trauma is strong. The two feed into each other. Trauma will increase the likelihood of a person using drugs and alcohol to cope and the lifestyle of addiction increases the likelihood of a person experiencing trauma. Those seeking relief from traumatic experiences through drugs and alcohol will only receive a temporary relief and will often become chemically dependent due to repeated use. Trauma will drive one deeper into addiction.
The use of Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing to treat trauma in addicted persons has had great success. It can complicate things in a standard therapy session when the client has developed trust issues through a previous lifestyle, and they do not wish to openly share about an event or circumstance that led them to where they are. However, many clients find it easier to relive an event and process it when done through therapist directed eye movements via various stimuli. When a traumatic event occurs, we need to process it. If we do not deal with what has occurred, we can find that the memories of the event can cause potentially volatile emotional and physical reactions. Such physical reactions could be increased blood pressure, neck pain, headaches, fatigue, stomach problems and panic attacks. These trauma-induced symptoms only exacerbate the emotional and behavioral problems. It becomes a vicious cycle that needs to be broken.
When seeking out a therapist for EMDR you should make sure to ensure they have had training in that form of psychotherapy. It is important that the clinician practicing EMDR is proficient and has shown a competency in how to facilitate a treatment session. Usually, a clinician will provide their qualifications and credentials when you are inquiring if they are the right fit for your needs. Those mental health workers capable of administering session for EMDR therapy usually will list it as a therapeutic offering in their practice.