Imagine visiting a mental health professional for trauma symptoms after a car accident, sexual assault, robbery, job loss, return from military combat, or even an animal attack. Your counselor suggests that you may benefit from Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR). You are desperate for relief and agree to the treatment without hesitation. The method unfolds as a trained EMDR professional and yourself pinpoint specific traumatic events in your past that are at the root of painful beliefs and unhelpful behaviors. Together you break down the memories, emotions, and beliefs associated with the event, and process the trauma using bilateral stimulation. You have been happy with the experience thus far, but are left wondering how moving your eyes side to side while thinking of a traumatic event alleviates the symptoms so effectively. To understand the answer to this inquiry, one must first understand the brain’s adaptive information processing system (AIP) and  the way psychopathology is perceived within the EMDR model.

Just as your body closes a gash on the skin or fades a black and purple bruise to emulate the original color, your brain is also a mechanism of healing. It heals the wounds that pierce the soul. Your brain is capable of making sense of many emotionally disruptive experiences. However, some damage is so severe that even your proficient and adaptive brain is unsure what to do with it. Such damage is known as trauma and it causes the adaptive information processing system (AIP) to become stuck. A malfunction in the AIP, leaves the traumatic experience in your active memory. In other words, the traumatic event is stored in the memory exactly as it was experienced at the time of the event. As a result, all current stressors and situations are prone to the same trauma responses that were used in dealing with the initial trauma. 

That can be a scary concept, but here’s the good news! Because we understand that trauma exists in the body and brain as a present moment experience, we also know that in order to relieve the suffering, we have to help the brain to believe that the event is over and you are safe now. We have to fire up the AIP!

This is the moment you have been waiting for! The answer to the question “How do bilateral eye movements have anything to do with healing trauma?” The bilateral stimulation utilized in EMDR therapy kick starts your adaptive information processing system (AIP) so that it can effectively file the traumatic experiences and assure your amygdala that you are now safe. The eye movements assist in helping you connect your current symptoms and linking them back to early traumatic life events. This step is essential in healing the original trauma and alleviating suffering in the present. Finally, with your traumatic event properly filed in the past, you are now free to explore more adaptive beliefs about your identity, your experiences, and your future!