What does EMDR therapy do to the brain?

Bessel van der Kolk MD, neuroscience researcher and clinician, has studied EMDR, Yoga, Internal Family Systems Theory, and Neurofeedback with the result that he emphatically states that trauma can be resolved.

He also states you must have a therapist who is familiar in their own learning and self development with wisdom of the body in yoga and meditation, or dance, somatic therapy and massage.

The associative process that is set up within the EMDR protocol to make new connections is, in his opinion absolutely appropriate for issues of shame, helplessness, worthlessness and failures of interpersonal safety and reciprocity.

His research is publically funded in America for the meticulous study of how the physiological processes of the body (and the brain is in the body) including cell changes are positively influenced by a combination of interventions. He is researching how the mind and body are connected.

Fundamentally, the context in which people live has a profound effect on how we learn to breath, touch, move, speak and make relationships. For the last twenty years Bessel van der Kolk has been analysing childhood trauma and attachment developmental disorder and how this affects the brain functions. His book The Body Keeps The Score he describes how yoga, mindfulness and movement help the brain to become master of one’s own emotional experiences.

The ventral pre-frontal cortex

In the brain, this is at the core of dealing with traumatic stress and must be included in therapy. In the East, drumming, chi gong, meditation and yoga are all activating exactly this area of the brain, the area that gets so activated by trauma. In the West, Prozac, alcohol, overeating, recreational drugs may be used to block off emotions that we cannot control when traumatised.

The orbital pre-frontal cortex

This is a part of the brain that allows us to inhibit impulses and actions such as being angry and wanting to thump someone. But for people with a history of abuse and neglect, this part of the brain is not working properly. Synchronous activity, movement and meditation can rebuild this, enabling better self control..

The amygdala

This is the smoke detector of the brain like a first emergency sensor and automatically detects a threat to which there may be a disproportionate and inappropriate reaction. The attention to breathing, the yoga, the inward attention to the body will be essential to regain perspective of what is dangerous or safe. This is called the ‘bottom up ‘ process and clients will need to be guided in psychoeducation to learn how to train the brain for conscious regulation of stress response.

One of Bessel van der Kolk’s past students, now a professor was the first person to prove the effect of the eye tracking of the client (of the therapist’s fingers) on the electrical activity of the brain waves necessary to make new connections. Essentially, the timekeeper part of the brain is deactivated by traumatic stress and it has become impossible for the individual to put the past into the context of that what has happened and to make present day connections to new experiences.

The physiological negative arousal which of the autonomic nervous system can therefore be soothed, calmed and the body can be regulated. Biofeedback, neurofeedback in how to safely feel the body is a most vital part of recovery. The front part of the brain needs building up in meditation and focused awareness which is a learning of how to tolerate one’s own presence, to be a curious observer and responsible carer of one’s own self. To be safe in one’s own body is a learning process and is absolutely crucial or in times of stress the person can collapse and go into disorganised system regulation and lose capacity to take care of oneself safely and appropriately. Somatic experience facilitated in the safe environment of the therapy session is essential for someone cut off from their body.

Relating to others and sensing reciprocity is then possible. Being a member of a group and meeting with people who have had similar experiences can be a good starting point.

An Exercise

So, if you do just one thing today, that is new for you, and can then become as habitual as cleaning your teeth. Try sitting or standing with your weight equal on both feet and your spine comfortably lengthened from the tailbone to the crown of your head, lifting upwards. Find the balance and either gaze softly and look towards a point, or close the eyes and go inward. Your stability needs to be secure.

Share This