When client's come to me, and start to experience EMDR, and it's impacts on the brain, I often get asked what the heck is going on? Why does EMDR impact them so differently, and often deeper, than talk therapy?
Going Deep in EMDR
Several studies have investigated the neural mechanisms underlying EMDR and how it affects the brain. One of my favorite metaphors about EMDR is that talk therapy is a bit like walking through a building with a flashlight trying to discover things, whereas EMDR is a bit like firing a guided rocket at the same building, being able not only to investigate all the floors of that building quickly but also being able to shift or "blow up" some of the building that gets in the way of us progressing (like the building of "I am not enough" or the building of "I am a burden").
(The buildings inside that stop our progress)
This on a neurocognitive level looks like EMDR activates regions involved in emotional processing, including the amygdala, insula, and anterior cingulate cortex (Thomson et al., 2019). These regions are known to be hyperactive in individuals with PTSD, and EMDR has been shown to reduce their activity, indicating a normalization of the brain's response to trauma (van den Berg et al., 2015).
Another study found that EMDR increases connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotional responses (Fang et al., 2018). On another metaphor scale, I often talk to clients about this change through the lens of resourcing. As our prefrontal cortex and amygdala begin to experience increased activity, we begin to have the tools we need for situations that we found just challenging before. Think about walking into a difficult conversation with a friend, feeling exposed, vs feeling like you have a big bodyguard at your side, and this is a bit of what this increased connectivity can feel like. This increased connectivity is also thought to underlie the therapeutic effects of EMDR and contribute to the reduction of PTSD symptoms.
(The Bodyguard Experience of EMDR)
Overall, the research suggests that EMDR modulates the brain's response to traumatic memories by activating emotional processing regions and increasing connectivity between emotion regulation and memory systems. While more research is needed to fully understand the neural mechanisms underlying EMDR, these findings provide promising insights into how this therapy approach works in the brain.
References: Fang, X., Zhu, X., Li, H., Shi, H., & Yuan, S. (2018). Abnormal cortical functional connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder during the auditory oddball task: A magnetoencephalography study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 9, 556. Thomson, L. K., Drummond, P. D., Grace, R., & Gouker, F. (2019). Neuroimaging studies of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): A systematic review. Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 13(3), 170-183.
van den Berg, D. P. G., de Bont, P. A. J. M., van der Vleugel, B. M., de Roos, C., de Jongh, A., Van Minnen, A., & van der Gaag, M. (2015). Prolonged exposure vs eye movement