EMDR Therapy is based on the premise that experiences (previous memories physically stored in the brain) create pathways that act as automatic templates for future experience (learning). Most of the time this is helpful; for example, if we touch a hot pot handle, the experience teaches us to use a pot holder next time. But sometimes in life, we experience situations that are beyond our ability to cope at the time (i.e., traumatic event). These difficult experiences are stored differently in the brain. All of the emotions, physical sensations and thoughts we experienced at the time of the difficult event are stored as part of the memory so that when the memory is triggered, we re-experience aspects of the situation as if it were happening again. For example, if I was riding my bike and was hit by a red car, my brain might “learn” from that experience that red cars are dangerous and I may physically experience a feeling of anxiety whenever I see a red car drive by, even though I logically “know” better. However, rarely is the connection between past experiences and present reactions as clear and logical as in the red car example. More often, people “over-react” or behave in “irrational” ways that do not make sense to others, or to themselves. A person may struggle with mistrust, fear of abandonment, feelings of inadequacy, a sense of helplessness, etc., yet not know why. Or they may find that that they react with upset to an event that most would agree is upsetting, but the size (or duration) of their reaction is much bigger (or longer) than one would expect.
These beliefs, emotional reactions, or behavioral responses may certainly seem irrational, but once a person’s trauma history is understood (e.g., adoption, abuse, bullying, betrayal, neglect, medical procedures, accidents, educational experiences, imperfect parenting) the reaction that before looked “irrational” now makes perfect sense. EMDR is a treatment protocol aimed at helping clients deal with past events (big or small) that are affecting their present behavior. The result is that clients are able to release what is unhelpful and distressing from the experience, and take away what is helpful and adaptive. This leads to functioning in healthier ways, and being able to think of past events without feeling distressed.