When a person has been through a traumatic experience, she or he may find that talking about it helps, but the awful feelings are still there. This is because, as one researcher put it, "the body keeps the score," or, more precisely, the part of the brain that deals with threats to survival is much more closely connected to the body than to the conscious mind. This is where EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) comes in. It attends to the intense emotions and the panic that can arise from overwhelming experiences.
Frightening events tend to evoke strong physical reactions — pounding heart, labored breathing, shakiness, and a churning sensation in the pit of the stomach. Our bodies are preparing to take action to ensure survival. This is the fight- or-flight response. Blood flow to the thinking and planning part of the brain is actually reduced at those times. This is not a time to strategize; it's a time to act. When we lose our footing on ice, we find our muscles dealing with the threat of falling before we have time to think. The reaction is coordinated by our "animal brain," which we share with all other creatures who ever face danger. It gets the body ready to deal with the danger in a split second; conscious awareness takes much longer to catch up. By the time we take in what's happened, our body is already revved up. At the same time our emotions, if we're still in danger, have a way of telling us, "This is bad. You are in trouble." We may experience that as dread, or perhaps panic or rage or despair.
Why is this relevant? Just as the immune system has a memory, enabling it to respond swiftly when a familiar germ comes along, so our self-preservation circuits get activated instantly when they face a threat that reminds them of a danger that they've encountered in the past. It makes sense that the body would thus prepare itself to react swiftly to dangers that it has learned to recognize. For example, the mere thought or perception of abandonment can trigger a deluge of emotions deriving from past losses.
What does EMDR do? Side-to-side eye movements seem to open up the "trauma pathways" — the nerve connections that convey memories of overwhelming events. Maybe it's because our eyes may flit back and forth when we feel unsafe and during REM sleep. Sound or touch that alternates from side to side seems to work equally well. It's as if these troubling memories become re-filed in an area of the brain that's not linked with the feelings of dread or panic or rage or despair. We still have the memories, but they no longer have the same power or discomfort. EMDR may work quickly when there is a single stressful incident — a car crash, for instance — and it can be helpful in dealing with a wide range of painful life events, whether recent or long ago.
EMDR can also be used to create or strengthen supportive connections, perhaps to a loving or supportive experience from the past, allowing these experience to be more available in times of high stress, when the mind can otherwise be a blank.
John Jankord , Jake Voelker and Tyra Hughes have been trained in EMDR. Feel free to contact one of them if you have questions. More information can be found on the website of the EMDR International Association.