Can Your Eyes Balance Your Emotions?
By Laura Palisin LPCC
For many people, it can feel nearly impossible to avoid feeling panicked at times, overwhelmed with daily stressors, or out of control in our emotional reactions. One lesser-known treatment option can help you balance your emotions and live a happier life. It’s called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
What Can EMDR Treat?
EMDR was developed to treat the effects of traditional trauma and reduce the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It works very well in those cases, and practitioners are finding that EMDR can help other patients as well.
This type of therapy is also very effective in treating any symptom involving feeling overly emotional or overloaded. This can include anxiety disorders and some mood disorders.
These overwhelming emotions make it difficult to make logical decisions for a good reason. In this state, someone is too heavy in the emotional mind. That makes it difficult to access the side of your brain that holds your logic, problem-solving skills, and rational thinking skills.
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Balancing The Two Sides of the Brain
To understand how EMDR works, we must first examine the two hemispheres in the brain and what they control.
The left side of the brain is commonly known as the “logical brain.”
The left brain controls:
- Basic factual information
- Any new information or skills
- Automatic actions such as walking, talking, and breathing
- Problem-solving abilities
The ability to apply coping skills you may have learned in therapy
At first glance, it may not seem like the logical brain is as important when it comes to getting results in psychotherapy, but it’s vital.
The right side of the brain is the “emotional brain.” When unchecked, this side of the brain is what causes that out-of-control feeling. When the hemispheres are balanced, the right side can be calm.
The right brain controls:
- Personal experience
- Emotional regulation
This third control should prevent you from feeling too intensely to function effectively. For many people, the right brain does this job well, and these people can calm down. They can feel more positive with their brains’ natural process of emotional regulation.
However, sometimes trauma or mental health disorders can interfere with the right brain’s ability to regulate strong emotions. When this happens, you may feel out of control with your emotions once something triggers a response.
What Happens When the Right Brain Becomes Overactive?
When there is an imbalance between the two sides of the brain, the emotional brain becomes overactive, making it difficult to access the logical brain. The information stored in your logical brain could assist you in calming down or self-regulating. But it’s just not possible to access sometimes, which can feel incredibly frustrating.
For example, have you ever felt confident that you had a good plan in calming down, but once you were upset, had no idea what to do? Maybe you made a great plan with a therapist but then drew a blank when the time came. This was likely because you could not get to your logical brain.
This phenomenon is not a reflection of your ability to understand new information or learn new coping skills. And it’s not a sign that therapy won’t work for you. It just means you need something different, and that’s ok.
Unprocessed Memories May Keep You Unbalanced
In addition to the right brain, another important function of emotional regulation comes from a small part of the brain called the amygdala. This section of the brain deals with not only emotions but also memory.
Only the most important or immediate information is supposed to stay in your short term memory. However, some traumatic or impactful memories can get “stuck” in short-term memory when they need to be processed into long-term memories.
This happens most commonly when an event is especially traumatic or painful or if it holds significant emotional value. These memories do not have to be huge traumatic events. Even seemingly “small” moments can hold significant emotional value and get stuck in this way.
I often refer to these events as “unprocessed memories.”
These unprocessed memories may cause emotional reactions more often because the information associated with these events is so readily available. The brain treats it as important, relevant information to the current situation, rather than something that happened long ago.
So, if you are experiencing sudden panic, feeling overwhelmed, or unable to control your emotions, it could be possible that these feelings could be traced back to an unprocessed memory still needing to be sorted out into your long term bank. Once this information is processed effectively, you will feel more in control of how you react emotionally, and the feelings will not be as intense. It should feel similar to something that happened a long time ago rather than something that happened recently.
EMDR Helps Process Stuck Memories
EMDR is a specialized type of therapy that helps people identify unprocessed memories. It uses the natural healing process that is supposed to occur in our REM sleep every night to help process those memories.
REM sleep is the part of our sleep cycle in which the brain decides what is most important to keep in short-term memory versus what is not as important and can be sent to the long-term bank. EMDR simulates this natural REM sleep process while you are awake to target those unprocessed memories that may be causing you so much emotional distress.
By moving your eyes in the same way that we all do in REM sleep and then processing the painful memory, you allow your brain to process the memory and put it where it belongs. Once those memories are processed effectively, your brain will be better balanced between both your logical brain and emotional brain.