What is the Purpose of Eye Movements in EMDR Therapy?

Eye movements, one of the most important elements of EMDR, are also the most interesting. In EMDR therapy, moving your eyes rhythmically to the left and right at regular intervals while focusing on the event in the process of reprocessing certain memories and traumas is an important part of the therapy.

In the therapist room, the aim is for the incoming person to notice something experientially and to process certain emotions.

In this process, eye movements – bilateral stimulation method have an important and special place.

 Eye movements first emerged when it was realized that it works by accident. (EMDR history for details)

There is no theory or scientific knowledge yet that clearly explains why eye movements work when processing traumas. The biggest reason for this is the deficiencies in brain imaging and research.

In this content, we will try to explain the technical details of why eye movements work through 4 theories.

Why Do Eye Movements Work?

To keep the attention in the present

Recalling past traumas can be overwhelming. When you think about these events, you can feel like you are experiencing that event with all of you. This happens more if there are intense emotions.

When you are in a depressing mood, your brain cannot function properly. Therefore, you think about the event and stay  overwhelmed.

When we add eye movements to EMDR, we divide the attention. Some of the attention is in the present and some is in the past.

So symbolically you also see this; “That incident is over and I’m here now.”

Because eye movements keep your attention in the present tense, it allows your brain to realize at an unconscious level that past events are left behind. Thus, since some of your attention is constantly in the present, it will be possible for you not to get lost in the past and to calm yourself quicker even if you are overwhelmed.

Right and left brain activation

The right side of the brain with more emotions; we can say that the left side is more related to analytical and logical skills.

When we give a bilateral stimulus such as eye movements to the brain, the stimulus is sent rhythmically to the right and left sides of the brain. We know that when this rhythmic stimulation is gone, the raft and left brain are more activated and the exchange between certain neurons increases there. With this activation, the brain has the opportunity to work holistically.

When we activate the right and left lobes while processing a certain event, we see that the connection between logic and emotion is formed more easily.

With this activation, you have the chance to reach the information stored in the brain faster and associations get faster. So when you focus on the trauma with the new information, you can start to see certain details that you cannot see there. It’s kind of like completing the missing puzzle pieces.

As you complete the pieces, you have a better chance of seeing the picture in the puzzle. Your awareness level starts to increase.

Cause: Bypassing short term memory

It is thought that there are two main types of memory structures in our brain, short term and long term.

The function of short-term memory is to pay attention to the stimuli related to the current situation and store these stimuli.

Some of these are then transferred to long-term memory. Short-term memory normally has a certain capacity. It cannot focus on many things at the same time.

When we remember traumatic events, we see that the emotions related to the event fill the capacity of short-term memory to a great extent. You start to feel overwhelmed because short-term memory, which is already limited, is largely filled with those emotions. Emotions rise too much and this heightened state creates an inner uneasiness.

 When you experience these, you probably try to suppress those feelings and focus your attention on something else because the experience is disturbing.

As such, you do not want to go back to past events and reflect on them. Whenever these events come to your mind, you try to suppress them immediately, but it doesn’t come to your mind.

On the one hand, you are aware that you are repressing, but when you do, you do not have the chance to process and digest those events. Maybe that’s why you start to feel helpless and stuck. Eye movements can have a very important function in this respect.

When we add eye movements and focus on certain past ailments, events and traumas at the same time, we fill the limited capacity of short-term memory with a neutral warning.

Thus, your short-term memory is not only filled with feelings, emotions associated with negative experiences. It also engages with stimuli where you focus on neutral eye movements.

Following the bilateral stimulus creates an additional task for the brain at that moment.

When you think about the event and try to follow the stimulus with your eyes, the amount of those stimuli in your brain increases, so you can allocate only 50% of the capacity of your short-term memory to the traumatic event, and the rest for eye movements.

 So you feel a lower level of discomfort for not looking back at the event in all of you, and the event begins to not come to your mind so vividly.

 Thus, the brain does not get so tired and has a chance to work more efficiently.

Hint: Higher-level structures such as the frontal cortex have the chance to perform functions associated with analytical / logic processes in a more synchronized manner.

When we add eye movements, your desire to reflect on and reflect on events may start to increase, both because looking at events is not as overwhelming as it used to be, and because it is easier to return to events. Thus, it is possible to go to the next stage in the process of desensitization and reprocessing and go deeper to the end.

Activating the natural orientation reex

There is a natural reflex in the brain called the orientation reflex. When this reflex is activated, your perceptions are clearer, you can move more alertly. You will be more open to new information.

Eye movements can also activate this process called orientation.

With eye movements activating this process, when you look back at the event, you have a chance to notice new details as your perceptions are clearer and more alert. At the same time, it is possible to look at events in a more controlled and calm way.

Eye movements have certain advantages in this regard due to neurological reasons.

Except for eye movements

There are also certain methods of bilateral stimulation such as giving a physical stimulation with a vibrating device, giving a rhythmic sound to both ears through earphones, and touching the shoulders or knees rhythmically by themselves. These methods can be used especially for people who cannot follow their eye movements for various reasons or who are disturbed by eye movements. However, studies in recent years show us that eye movements are slightly more beneficial than other bilateral stimulation methods.

William Lindberg
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