It appears that within each of us there is an information-processing system that is designed to process upsetting events so that we can maintain a state of mental health.
When something unpleasant happens, we think about it, talk about it, and dream about it until it doesn’t bother us anymore.
At this stage, we can say it has arrived at an “adaptive resolution.” We have learned whatever was useful about the experience (such as the danger of walking in dark alleys) and stored it in our brain with the appropriate emotion so it can guide us in the future. We have also discarded what is useless, such as the negative emotions, physical sensations, and self-beliefs that stemmed from the event.
When something traumatic happens to us, however, this innate processing system can break down. Our perceptions of the terrible event (what we saw, heard, felt, and so on) may be stuck in our nervous system in the same form as when we experienced them. These unprocessed perceptions can be expressed as the nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive thoughts of PTSD. In EMDR we ask the person to think of the traumatic event, and then we stimulate the person’s information-processing system so that the traumatic experience can be appropriately processed, or “digested.” As this “digestion” process takes place, insights arise, the needed associations are made, whatever is useful is learned, and the appropriate emotions take over.
With EMDR, this information-processing system can work quickly. It can progress at the same rate of speed seen in the body after physical trauma. If someone is raped, her body may go into shock, bleed, or shake. But with the appropriate medical care, the body may repair its wounds in days or weeks. Why do we think that the mind should take longer to heal? It is affected by the physiological state of the brain, and the brain, too, is part of the body. EMDR does is to reconnect the stored event with the physical information-processing system of the brain. Then, through the natural healing process, trauma is digested, and the mental wounds can be healed, perhaps as rapidly as those of the body.
Because the success of EMDR is not limited to healing major trauma, this accelerated information processing model can guide therapists in helping people with many other problems. Two of the first questions I ask clients are, “What are you doing that you don’t want to do?” and “What are you prevented from doing?” The answers to these questions help me to home in on the causes of present-day despair. Unless a psychological complaint is caused by purely organic or chemical factors (as with brain damage or some forms of schizophrenia), it is probably based on the person’s history. Earlier life experiences, many of which took place in childhood, long before we had any choice, appear clinically to be one of the primary reasons for certain kinds of depression, phobias, anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, relationship difficulties, and addictions.