EMDR Therapy – What Makes it Tick?

Everyone has trauma. Put another way, no one doesn’t have trauma.

It’s a liberating truth, in a sense – your trauma is no more off-putting to a stranger for the mere fact of its existence than theirs is to you. Complications in our interpersonal experiences regarding our trauma and the traumas of either largely arise from the misguided belief that trauma somehow only affects isolated pockets of disturbed individuals.

You know… veterans. Those who have suffered physical abuse. Sexual assault survivors.

And that trauma is real and valid – but it isn’t the only real and valid trauma… Not by a longshot.

Other forms of trauma can include living through natural disasters… verbal abuse… exposure to violence… divorce… car accidents… deaths of loved ones… serious illnesses… abandonment… imprisonment… 

The list goes on.

If we had no other evidence to support the universal experience of trauma, it would be enough to know the sheer volume and variety of therapies developed to address the root causes of trauma and dampen the symptoms.

A cursory search on the internet for “trauma therapy” yields innumerable results. And because all trauma is personal, each method – from modern Westsern psychology to ancient Indigenous wisdom – differs in value by the person.

Like EMDR therapy. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy seeks to desensitize trauma victims to their own traumatic memories.

Let’s keep digging into its practice and efficacy…

The “WHY” of EMDR

You might benefit from EMDR therapy if you find yourself either plagued by traumatic memories or unable to even approach them without debilitating mental and emotional side effects.

Its developer, Francine Shapiro, believes that inside of all of us is the capability to process these memories and feelings, which she calls the Adaptive Information Processing model. 

Unexamined trauma can disrupt our natural processes

Especially because trauma rearranges neural networks. 

That’s right. A traumatic experience forms itself in the brain as a maladaptive neural network, wherein the person with the memory cannot travel through it as they would a simple, nondisruptive memory. 

When they conjure the memory, they literally get stuck there and it becomes difficult to move past the memory in order to function properly and to willfully return to the memory to unpack it at a later date.

It is seemingly a self-destructive cycle whereby a sufferer is forced to choose between never thinking of the memory, and thinking only of the memory. The more we do this, the harder it becomes to address the memory because steady traffic of any given neural network actually builds the fatty perimeter of that network, strengthening its presence as a trodden path.

Just like trails in the woods – the more you walk a trail, the more the trail lends itself to being walked upon. 

EMDR seeks to change the pattern by adding new information. Layering a new memory atop the old creates new branches, new trails that shoot off of the old one.

The “HOW” of EMDR

EMDR typically happens in eight phases:

  1. History and Treatment Planning
  2. Preparation
  3. Assessment and Identification of Offending Memories
  4. Treatment (more on this soon…)
  5. Treatment
  6. Treatment
  7. Treatment
  8. Evaluation

Okay, so treatment takes up four of the eight phases.

What exactly is the treatment?

Consider that the eight phases above can be condensed into two real phases: strengthening positive neural pathways in preparation to cope, and desensitization through the use of Dual Attention Stimulation (DAS)– bi-lateral eye movements, pulsers, tones dinging alternately from the left and right sides of your body. 


By first repeatedly trodding the neural trail of positive emotions and cognitions, you make those paths more easily accessible in the future. 

Then, when attempting to process the compartmentalized traumatic memories on the right side of the brain, the bridge can more easily be built from positive feelings to the negative memory.

While there’s no one reason that DAS makes EMDR effective, there are certainly several ideas. DAS, for example, strains the effort of accessing working memories which serves as a distraction from the regular trauma response you’d have thinking of a painful memory. It also mimics REM sleep via the use of bi-lateral eye movements. 

Finally, it triggers the orient response, which is a phenomenon in psychology wherein a traumatized person is able to observe the current moment they’re in while touching a traumatic memory… disproving the trauma’s insistence in present danger.

People plagued by traumatic memories who haven’t had success in moving past them may find these techniques valuable.

Of course, there are many more that are becoming more available as scientists and researchers start to locate physical proof of emotional, bodily, and societal traumas using biomarkers. 

My filmmaking partner, Nick Polizzi, and I have scoured all of this new research and compiled it into a brand-new docuseries coming out in just a few short weeks…

Keep an eye on your inbox for updates. You’ll be able to reserve your seat for FREE as early as next week.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.