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Exploring the Science Behind EMDR Therapy: How it Rewires the Brain

So this blog will be a little more technical than usual.

So you are interested in EMDR. Well I have a lot to say on the topic. I provide EMDR therapy in Baltimore County, Maryland.   We will delve into the science behind Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and I will explain how it rewires the brain to heal trauma and other emotional wounds. EMDR is a revolutionary therapeutic approach that combines elements of psychotherapy with bilateral stimulation techniques, such as eye movements or tapping. It is a bit of a rebel intervention as it breaks from traditional therapy where one just talks about what is upsetting – rather you have a healing experience with the trauma at its core. Somatic experiencing and Brainspotting are also interventions that allow for the client to have a restorative experience.  By engaging in these specific movements, individuals can effectively process traumatic memories and release associated negative emotions. But how exactly does EMDR work? Through extensive research and neuroscientific studies, experts have discovered that EMDR therapy activates the brain’s natural healing mechanisms, allowing for the reprocessing of distressing memories and the development of new, adaptive insights. And this is the beauty of EMDR therapy – your own brain holds the wisdom you need to resolve your pain, completely tailored to you – it’s just a question of tapping into that wisdom.

Understanding the Science Behind EMDR Therapy

EMDR therapy is an experience that has gained significant recognition for its ability to heal trauma and relieve emotional distress. To understand how EMDR therapy works, it is essential to explore the underlying science behind it. At its core, EMDR therapy is based on the concept of memory reconsolidation, a process through which memories are modified and updated. A less technical description is that the memory is unraveled through EMDR and stored in a way that causes less pain. The experience is no longer overwhelming. Memories that are associated with trauma or negative experiences can become stuck, leading to emotional distress and psychological symptoms. EMDR therapy aims to reprocess these distressing memories, allowing individuals to create new, adaptive insights and reduce the emotional impact associated with them. EMDR does not require you to lie to yourself, rather it challenges you to reassess your experience based on all the wisdom you have gained throughout your lifetime rather than just what you were feeling and thinking in the moment.

How EMDR Therapy Rewires the Brain

One of the key aspects of EMDR therapy is the use of bilateral stimulation, which can include eye movements, tapping, or auditory tones. These bilateral movements or sensations activate both hemispheres of the brain, facilitating communication between them. This bilateral stimulation is believed to mimic the rapid eye movements that occur during the sleep cycle, where memories are naturally processed and integrated. By engaging in bilateral stimulation during EMDR therapy, individuals can access and reprocess traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment. It feels safe because it creates dual awareness – one part of you is in the memory while the other knows you are safe in an office. This one foot in and one foot out approach to the memory gives distance and perspective.

During an EMDR session, a trained therapist guides the individual through a series of specific eye movements or other bilateral movements while simultaneously focusing on the distressing memory or negative belief. This process allows the individual to access the memory while also experiencing the bilateral stimulation. As the memory is reprocessed, the distress associated with it gradually diminishes. The brain’s natural healing mechanisms are activated, allowing for the development of new insights and the integration of the memory into a more adaptive narrative. Here is a secret many do not know about EMDR – there is joy in the adaptive narrative, there is freedom when you experience a choice in the story you tell yourself about your past.

The Role of Memory Reconsolidation in EMDR Therapy

Memory reconsolidation is a critical process that occurs when memories are recalled and then stored again in an updated form. During an EMDR session, when an individual recalls a traumatic memory, the memory is retrieved from long-term storage. The bilateral stimulation used in EMDR therapy disrupts the consolidation process, allowing for the memory to be reprocessed and integrated in a new way. This reprocessing leads to a decrease in emotional distress and the development of more adaptive beliefs and perceptions. How does this work? Trauma often causes us to cling to beliefs about ourselves and the world that are not functional in day to day life. The powerful experience of trauma blocks our ability to reason and grow past our experience. EMDR allows the client to question these entrenched beliefs and create beliefs more aligned with how we want to live.

Here are some brain facts about the impact of EMDR. Research has shown that memory reconsolidation can lead to significant changes in the neural networks associated with traumatic memories. Through the process of reconsolidation, the connections between the emotional centers of the brain, such as the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for cognitive processing, are strengthened and modified. This rewiring of the brain allows for the creation of new neural pathways that support adaptive responses to distressing memories, ultimately leading to a reduction in symptoms and an improved overall well-being.

EMDR Therapy and Bilateral Stimulation

Bilateral stimulation is a fundamental component of EMDR therapy and plays a crucial role in facilitating the reprocessing of traumatic memories. The most commonly used form of bilateral stimulation in EMDR therapy is eye movements. During an EMDR session, I guide the client’s eye movements from side to side with a light while they simultaneously focus on the distressing memory or negative belief. This bilateral eye movement is thought to stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, allowing for the integration and reprocessing of the memory. The eye movements are not jarring – you don’t have to race to follow the light or hand movements. Rather you sit and notice that the light is moving and your brain does the rest for you.

Another form of bilateral stimulation used in EMDR therapy is tapping. I use a handheld device that provides alternating vibrations to the left and right sides of the body. These tapping sensations create a similar bilateral effect, facilitating the reprocessing of traumatic memories. Sometimes my clients just like using the light, others use the tappers exclusively while they close their eyes, others use both. EMDR therapy is flexible enough to used in a way that best works for you.

EMDR Therapy and the Brain’s Stress Response

Traumatic experiences can profoundly impact the brain’s stress response system, leading to heightened arousal and emotional reactivity. EMDR therapy has been found to have a positive influence on the brain’s stress response, helping individuals regulate their emotions and reduce the intensity of their reactions. How does that work? After EMDR when a situation happens reminiscent of a past trauma you are able to stay in the current moment rather than react as if the past memory is happening in the present.

Research has shown that EMDR therapy can lead to changes in the brain regions associated with the stress response, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus. These changes include a reduction in the amygdala’s hyperactivity and an increase in the hippocampus’s volume, which is responsible for memory consolidation and regulation of emotions. By rewiring these neural pathways, EMDR therapy helps individuals develop healthier stress response patterns, leading to improved emotional well-being.

Research and Studies on the Effectiveness of EMDR Therapy

Over the years, numerous research studies have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of EMDR therapy in treating trauma and other psychological disorders. The results have consistently shown that EMDR therapy is a highly effective treatment approach, with significant improvements observed in symptoms related to trauma, anxiety, depression, and phobias.

One study conducted by Shapiro and Maxfield (2002) found that after only three EMDR therapy sessions, 84-90% of the participants no longer met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Additionally, a meta-analysis conducted by Chen et al. (2014) that included 26 studies found that EMDR therapy was superior to other therapies in reducing PTSD symptoms and associated distress.

These research findings highlight the effectiveness and potential of EMDR therapy as a powerful tool for healing trauma and promoting psychological well-being.

Who Can Benefit From EMDR Therapy?

EMDR therapy has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of psychological conditions and emotional wounds. Individuals who have experienced traumatic events, such as physical or sexual abuse, accidents, natural disasters, or combat-related trauma, can benefit greatly from EMDR therapy. EMDR therapy can also be helpful in addressing other forms of distress, such as anxiety disorders, phobias, addiction, and depression. Oftentimes I use EMDR to address experiences of neglect, abuse and feelings of abandonment. It doesn’t matter whether your trauma is not as intense as someone else’s. What matters is the impact those experiences had on you.

If you are considering EMDR therapy, it is essential to consult with a trained and licensed EMDR therapist who can guide you through the process. EMDR therapy requires a lot of training and is best utilized by the therapist that puts the time and effort into learning how to do EMDR well – attempting EMDR without training is bad practice and would lead me to wonder what else the clinician is free styling.

Finding an EMDR Therapist Near You

If you are in the state of Maryland, I offer EMDR in person in Towson which is in Baltimore County, or online for the state of Maryland. To find an EMDR therapist elsewhere, there are several resources available. You can start by reaching out to your primary care physician or mental health professional for recommendations. Online directories, such as the EMDR International Association’s therapist finder, can also help you locate qualified EMDR therapists in your area. It is crucial to take the time to research and choose a therapist who aligns with your needs and preferences. All therapists have specialities and you want to work with someone that is trained and enjoys addressing the kinds of struggles you experience.

Here’s a wrap up

EMDR therapy is a scientifically supported therapy intervention that has transformed the lives of countless individuals who have experienced trauma and emotional distress. Trauma is inherently an experience and healing happens by having a corrective experience via EMDR. By understanding the science behind EMDR therapy we are able to change people’s lives. I can attest for the profound impact EMDR has on rewiring the brain and facilitating the healing process. Through memory reconsolidation, bilateral stimulation, and the activation of the brain’s natural healing mechanisms, EMDR therapy offers a unique and effective way to process trauma, release negative emotions, and develop new, adaptive insights. If you or someone you know is struggling with trauma or emotional wounds, consider exploring the world of EMDR therapy and the incredible potential it holds for transforming lives. To begin therapy with me please go to to sign up for a free 15 minute consultation.


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