What is EMDR?

closeup of woman's green eye

What is EMDR?

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is a method for helping the brain resolve inner conflict.

What does this mean for a potential client?

Your brain can resolve inner conflict!

Most clients come into my office hoping to resolve some emotion or behavior that is blocking them from living the way they want to. These emotions or behaviors can often be confusing. Daily, I hear such phrases as, “I have no idea,” or “why do I keep doing this?” or “it makes no sense.” Apparently, there is a mysterious element inside that brings these symptoms while somehow remaining hidden!

An EMDR therapist makes certain assumptions about situations like this:

  1. The brain is doing what it’s doing for an adaptive reason,
  2. The brain is in conflict with itself, and
  3. The brain is not aware of alternative behaviors, emotions, or thoughts. We’ll take each of these in turn.

Let’s explore these…

  1. The brain is doing what it’s doing for an adaptive reason.

    The EMDR approach is built around the concept of the Adaptive Information Processing System (AIP). This is a fancy way of describing what our brains do all day: take in data and then integrate it in with the rest of the data. As you are reading this article right now, your AIP is hard at work taking in data and integrating it across various areas of knowledge, experience, emotion, belief, etc… Imagine the AIP like the digestive system. Whenever the digestive system encounters material to be processed, it uses a variety of mechanisms to break things down into useful parts, eliminate waste, and transfer those useful parts to where they will be most useful. The point of this whole process is to help the person become more adaptive; if I know more then I can do more. The AIP is the way the brain digests information.

    So then how is depression adaptive? Addiction, anxiety, anger? In the EMDR world, we see these as the brain trying to protect itself. Of course, your next question might be, “from what?” Glad you asked…

  2. The brain is in conflict with itself

    Let’s face it – there is a lot going on between your ears – all. day. long. Two hands mural

    The AIP occasionally runs into material it doesn’t want to process; kind of like me with brussel sprouts! But, unlike me, the AIP cannot simply choose not to take in one thing or another. Every input into your brain is irreversible. Perhaps you’ve heard phrases like “you can’t un-see that,” or, “thanks, now I’ll never get that out of my head. These are examples of how the brain simply cannot choose what comes in and what stays out. So, the AIP, quite cleverly, develops another way of handling what it considers “un-processable” material: isolation.

    While the AIP is adaptively integrating new information in with the old, there is another system that is adaptively isolating new information from the old. Although there’s no formal name for this, I like to call it the Protective Information Quarantine System (PIQ). This system’s sole purpose is to keep material away from the AIP. In the PIQ, material is not integrated or processed, just stored like on a computer hard drive, frozen, locked away in a corner where it can’t contaminate the rest of the system. The problem with the PIQ is that it can’t keep material from being activated, only from being integrated. Herein lies the conflict: what if you absolutely had to carry a rock in your back pocket? Because you put it in your pocket, often you’ll forget that it’s even there; it’ll just sit there while you’re talking with friends or going on a walk. But, when you sit down, you all too quickly remember that uncomfortable lump that you can’t get rid of.

    This is what the PIQ (Protective Information Quarantine) is like: a pointy rock that pokes you without warning.

    Sharp RocksThink about how this rock would impact your behaviors and emotions: you might sit down less often or become more irritable when you do. It would be harder to focus on the present or to feel compassion when someone complains about their own pain. Welcome to the PIQ dominated life.

    So then what’s the advantage of the PIQ? You don’t have to walk around constantly bothered by disturbing material. The disadvantage? It comes back to haunt you.

  3. The brain is not aware of alternative behaviors, emotions, or thoughts.

    With EMDR, we reach into the PIQ, pull out that threatening information, and then present it to the AIP for reprocessing. Why does this work? You have options you didn’t know about.

    It just so happens that the AIP is much more powerful than it thinks. While, at one point, the information placed the in PIQ was too much for the AIP to handle, it is no longer. While your AIP has grown up and become more adaptive and sophisticated, your PIQ has not. So, even though the AIP perceives a threat in the PIQ, this is only because the AIP’s intelligence gathering is out of date. Sure, this was a threat to you, but things have changed since then.

    Surprisingly, when EMDR re-presents the material to the AIP, the AIP processes it just like it processes everything else! Suddenly panic is not the only response available to passing a dark alley. Now, instead of re-experiencing trauma every time the PIQ is activated, the AIP resolves the trauma and we begin to respond more adaptively to that dark alley. This is the difference between a feeling of panic and street smarts: one is adaptive, and the other is not.

If these concepts resonate with your experience, then EMDR might be right for you. Use the contact information below to get in touch and set up an appointment. Your brain is ready. Are you?