HOW DOES EMDR THERAPY HELP WITH DEPRESSION?
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner
How do eye movements and holding two vibrating devices help cure depression? If you find this concept bizarre, you’re not alone. Many people (therapists included) are skeptical about EMDR therapy. It’s okay to be skeptical; I was also skeptical until I started seeing results I had never seen with talk therapy. With EMDR, many of my clients experience complete elimination of symptoms, including those who had depression.
EMDR therapy started as trauma treatment, but since it was developed, back in 1987, it has been used by therapists to treat many different conditions. Studies show that EMDR has effective outcomes for many mental health issues, including the treatment of depression.
In order to understand how EMDR can help people with depression – first, you have to understand the AIP Model.
THE AIP MODEL – HOW EMDR THERAPY HEALS THE BRAIN
When you cut yourself and start bleeding, your immune system kicks in. Blood clotting and inflammation help reduce blood loss and protect your body from infections. Finally, your body start to replace the damaged tissue. Your body has an internal mechanism to protect itself from injuries.
Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) is a system in your brain that helps transform disturbing memories into ‘adaptive’ or regular memories. Thanks to the AIP system, some troubling memories are stored in the brain as events that happened in the past. These memories lose their ability to cause intense pain.
If, for example, you just had a conflict with your partner, it probably made you upset. But then you talked about it, slept on it and gave it some thought. And if everything went well (and your AIP system functioned normally), the next day you get some perspective and you no longer feel quite so bothered.
Though not every conflict can be resolved by taking a nap, the AIP system helps put things in perspective. Thanks to the AIP system, you can take a step back from the argument and remind yourself that there are other things about your partner that you love. And that maybe (just maybe) you also had a part in the argument.
THE BRAIN’S NATURAL HEALING SYSTEM
The AIP system is the brain’s version of the body’s healing system. Like the body’s system, the AIP system provides the brain with resources to overcome challenging situations that our brains experience. These can be “large-T” traumas such as abuse, or “small-t” traumas such as childhood teasing. This system helps the brain process these events so that they become integrated and are no longer so disturbing. The result is that past events stop having so much effect on your thoughts, feelings and functioning.
AIP is a natural process that in normal conditions happens automatically in the brain. Without trauma and disturbance, this system works automatically and the integration happens on its own. It’s like scheduling backup on your computer that runs automatically in the background.
But, like your computer trying to back up, sometimes the AIP system fails.
Trauma and disturbance lead to AIP system failure. The brain’s inability to integrate information from different neural networks results in symptoms that bring your clients to seek therapy: depression, anxiety and, in many cases, symptoms of trauma.
EMDR & AIP
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) works by helping connect the networks that hold these disturbing memories in the emotional brain (the brainstem and the limbic system) with neural networks in upper areas of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which regulate complex emotional reasoning. With EMDR, we help the AIP system integrate these disturbing memories so the memories become less painful and debilitating.
You don’t have to experience severe trauma to have a dysfunction in your AIP system. Anything that was emotionally intense at the time – teasing, not getting picked for the softball team, or even a pet dying – can be processed incorrectly and can cause problems later on. If the memories remain painful, they can contribute to negative self – talk or other habits that cause distress This may happen because you were young and your brain was not capable of processing what happened.
Of course, some emotional distress may be caused by “Big-T” traumas such as continuous abuse, neglect, or secondary trauma caused by seeing something horrible happen in front of you.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE AIP SYSTEM GETS DISRUPTED?
For years, psychology and medical professionals have been discussing the underlying causes of depression. I’ve seen hundreds of depressed clients as a therapist, and I can tell you that most peoples’ depression isn’t simply caused by bad genetics. Many depressed people have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) such as abuse, neglect, secondary trauma, bullying, or parental conflict. In fact, Kaiser Permanente did a study between 1995-1997 of over 9,000 of its members, which showed a correlation between difficult childhood experiences and later health and emotional problems, including depression.
The AIP system in the brain doesn’t work well earlier in life. As a result, a child who experiences constant criticism, shame, abuse or neglect has trouble processing this feedback and internalizes it. Children are extremely impressionable because they are constantly learning about the world around them. If a parent is shaming, critical, or abusive, the child learns that she must be bad or inferior in order for someone who is supposed to love them to treat them that way. This feeling of “I’m not good enough” or “I am bad” becomes a part of the child’s (and later adult’s) personality.
Most depressed people tend to see reality as negative. They may constantly see themselves as wrong, faulty, or inadequate, and they tend to interpret average events in negative ways.
This may happen because of the normal process of Synaptic Pruning – a stage in brain development whereby the developing brain gets rid of synapses that are not necessary or not used often – ”prunes” synapses in the depressed brain that are actually needed for complex emotional reasoning. When children are mistreated, their brains decide they’re no good, and when the brain experiences normal synaptic pruning as they grow, the synapses that tell them they’re OK are pruned because they aren’t used as often as the synapses that report that they’re not. Research is still ongoing, but there is compelling evidence that this may contribute to mental health issues later in life .
Depression can be challenging to treat. What do you tell a person who has lost all hope that life will get better? When there is no joy in life and no motivation to do anything to change it – what will help? That’s right: EMDR therapy.
EMDR THERAPY FOR DEPRESSION
By now, I hope you know that depression is not only a result of low levels of serotonin in your brain. Depression happens when people learn to believe that there is something inherently wrong with them.
With successful EMDR Therapy, the information that was stored in isolation in the emotional brain is integrated with other networks and becomes a regular memory–a memory that is no longer connected to distressing emotions.
The events that happened in the past feel like they belong in the past. The abuse, neglect or criticism that has long made your client feel that there is something wrong with her will become a story that happened many years ago. She will be free of the debilitating messages that her brain has been telling her because those memories were not properly processed by her AIP system.
One of my favorite responses after a successful EMDR treatment for depression is when, after a session, clients say “it’s gone,” or “it’s over.” Some clients describe the old disturbing memory as something they can see–they still remember what happened– but tell me that the emotional charge is gone after EMDR.
EMDR is a powerful way to help your clients who are suffering from depression based in childhood experiences. It will help integrate painful memories so that your clients can move on from past traumas and live life in the moment. They will be able to see their daily experiences in context rather than seeing them as painful reminders of events that were, after all, never really about them. EMDR is one of the most promising depression treatments available, and in this blog, I’ll show you how to use it effectively to help ease your clients’ suffering.