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The Trauma Experience: How does EMDR help us heal from Trauma?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA explains what EMDR Therapy is and how it helps us to process Trauma in a healthy way.

EMDR Therapy, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, is a therapeutic technique that enables individuals to process and heal from traumatic experiences. Research shows that it successfully reduces emotional, cognitive, physiological, and behavioural symptoms of trauma.

EMDR is based on the adaptive information processing (AIP) model, which stipulates that new experiences are integrated into existing memory networks within our brains. Accordingly, our brains are continuously adapting and building deeper understanding of the world around us. This allows us to make sense of our experiences. Thus, when this system is working as it should, new events are integrated in ways that benefit us.

However, traumatic incidents that overwhelm our coping abilities and activate our survival mechanisms may not be appropriately processed. Instead, when our brain re-directs processing capacities from brain regions not essential to the survival mode to those that are, some of the communication between regions goes offline. For example, communication between the limbic system, associated with emotion processing and survival responses, and the higher cortical areas, associated with critical thinking and memory, may be disrupted during trauma. As a result, traumatic incidents may not be adequately integrated in our brain networks in line with the AIP and rather become frozen and stuck in their own neural network.

When such a trauma memory becomes stuck, it is somewhat unanchored in space and time. In other words, the brain knows it happened but due to the lack of integration cannot access when and where it happened. Thus, when we experience cues in our present environment that our brain associates with the past traumatic incident, the brain is unable to identify that the danger was in the past and the cues in our present are not a threat. Instead, the brain informs us that the trauma is happening again right now, and invokes a similar emotional and physiological state in us as the traumatic event itself. Our survival mode may be activated, even if in reality we are not in danger. This, in essence, is what happens in PTSD, but it can also happen following any kind of Big T and little t Trauma that has not been fully processed.

According to the AIP model, EMDR helps the brain to heal from past trauma by using bilateral stimulation to enhance communication between the left and right hemisphere, remove processing blockages, and allow the trauma memory to integrate appropriately into the AIP network. In this way, the AIP model proposes that all our negative beliefs and behaviours are a result of inadequate integration and “stuckness” in a neural network, i.e. they are a symptom rather than the cause of our distress, and can be healed when processing blockages are removed.

The working memory model has further indicated that EMDR effectiveness in reducing trauma symptoms may be linked to the dual taxation of the working memory, putting strain on its limited processing capacity. When we access a memory, we retrieve it from long-term memory storage to our working memory storage. The working memory has limited capacity and can only hold a few things at a time. During EMDR, our working memory is taxed by the memory itself and by the eye movements. This creates competition and as the attention switches back and forth, the trauma memory gets increasingly weakened and blurred. Accordingly, the intensity of the memory reduces and it is subsequently reconsolidated as a less vivid version in long-term memory. Strong evidence has been provided for this working memory model contributing to EMDR effectiveness as studies have shown that other secondary tasks, such as mental arithmetic, and complex tapping patterns enhance the reduction in trauma symptoms within EMDR Therapy.

Many studies highlight the effectiveness of EMDR Therapy in reducing trauma-related symptoms, including emotional distress, negative core beliefs, excessive physiological reactivity, and dysfunctional behavioural patterns. While initially a technique developed specifically for trauma- and stress-related disorders, EMDR is now widely used across a range of clinical symptoms including mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and sleep disorders.

If you would like to explore how EMDR Therapy could help you, book a consultation with psychologist Dr. Esslin Terrighena, please contact (852) 2521 4668 or

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