Traumatic and stressful events in everyday life are very prevalent. Quarrelling with friends, being scolded by others, parents divorcing, emotional neglect, domestic violence, loss of loved ones, natural disasters, serious injury, and major illnesses are all situations that may cause different degrees of psychological trauma. Although the medical term for trauma is narrowly defined for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD), it does not mean that other seemingly “minor” experiences are not traumatic. When an event or series of events overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, they can cause a person to become unable to process the events emotionally, cognitively and physically, causing trauma to occur. There are many treatment methods for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One method is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), which has emerged in the United States in recent years. EMDR is one of the more effective treatment methods, but it should be offered by mental health clinicians with recognized professional training.

How did EMDR start?

Thirty years ago Dr Francine Shapiro, a psychologist, discovered a connection between eye movement and persistent distressing memories. Dr Shapiro invented the concept of “bilateral stimulation.” She started with guiding the patient with particular eye movements. As a result, it helped the patients feel less overwhelmed by strong emotions, while the brain reprocessed the memory, which is similar to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) cycles during sleep. Nowadays, research has shown that other kinds of bilateral movements, such as through ears or hands, can also relieve emotions and restart the brain’s reconsolidation abilities.

How does EMDR work?

Here’s an example. Mr Wong witnessed a car accident while crossing the street. He saw a pedestrian get hit by a car and was covered in blood. Since then, he couldn’t take the same road again. He would constantly have flashbacks of the scenes and feel panic whenever he sees a car driving fast or whenever someone is jaywalking, triggering him to re-experience the trauma again. Usually, the human brain has the ability to process emotions and memories, however, traumatic memories are different from regular ones. The cognitive brain knows the event has happened in the past but the emotional brain thinks the person is still in danger as a result of activating the “Flight-Flight-Freeze” stress responses. When the brain’s processing is blocked, the upsetting images, thoughts, and emotions seem frozen in time, causing the patient to be constantly in pain.

Every time the traumatic memory is retrieved, it comes up the same way in its own neural net as an isolated and dysfunctional stored memory. As we activate the trauma network while adding the bilateral stimulation which will stimulate both sides of the brain, more neurons light up, even those that have never been fired before. Therapeutic changes are the result of the processing of these traumatic memories within larger adaptive networks, which allows the brain to resume its natural healing process. Once these processes of reconsolidation are completed, the memories are still remembered, but the emotional charge which is connected to the experience will be reduced or alleviated.

Who can benefit from EMDR therapy?

EMDR can be applied to children and adults of all ages. EMDR therapists address a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the following challenges:

– Anxiety, Panic attacks, and Phobias
– Depression
– Eating disorders
– Grief and loss
– Trauma and PTSD
– Sexual assault
– Sleep disturbance
– Substance abuse and addiction
– Violence and abuse

Our negative experiences in the past affect us all. We feel pain because of losing someone, we may have low self-esteem because of emotional failures, we lose self-confidence because of embarrassments or rejections, we need to be perfect because of high expectations from parents, and more. These distressing events affect memories, and memories affect our emotions, physical sensations, and how we perceive ourselves. EMDR is an evidence-based treatment that can help people reprocess memories, restore positive beliefs and enable resilience in life.

If you would like to speak with a counsellor about how we can support you, please contact us.

By Cecilia Yu

Find out more about Cecilia here

Other Articles Written by Cecilia Yu:

Befriend your Nervous System

Say No to Emotional Blackmail

Negative Emotions Can Be Good for You

Nonviolent Communication

Related Articles:

Dealing with Negative Emotions


Understanding the effects of Early Memories