How EMDR can help us sleep better.



How EMDR can help us sleep better.

Published on: 01/May/2023

Last Update: 01/May/2023

In this article, I’d like to explain how exactly EMDR enables better sleep. So, EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is helpful to first understand our natural sleep cycles in order to appreciate the mechanisms at work in EMDR.

Now, in human beings, a normal night’s sleep has five phases that recur in a cyclical pattern. Non-REM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep is stage 1-4, whereas REM (rapid eye movement) is stage 5. All sleep is important, but REM sleep in particular plays an important role in dreaming, emotional processing and storage of memories. Think of it like this- our brains have a feeling part and the thinking part to it. All our day-to-day experiences come attached with a feeling and are initially sitting in the feeling brain. During REM sleep, the feeling part and thinking part ‘talk’ to each other (the technical term for this is ‘Bi-Lateral Stimulation or BLS’). Whilst this talking happens, the emotions or feelings behind the experience is kind of discharged or processed. So, what then is transferred to the thinking part of our brain is only the plain fact. Imagine if you will, the thinking part of our brain is like a filing cabinet, having all these facts stored in date and time. In other words, this is what we call memories.

On the whole, our brain is able to carry out this process quite seamlessly during our REM phase, without having to wake us up. We are blissfully dreaming- with the only outward sign that this is happening inside, being that our eyeballs move rapidly under our eyelids to anyone who is awake and watching us sleep.

However, if we experience something that is traumatic or stressful in our lives, sometimes the brain is not able to successfully process this material on its own, during the REM phase. I mean, it probably tries to, but if the material is too overwhelming, the sense of threat from the event becomes so real, that it jerks us awake, adrenaline pumping, in order to help us flee or fight this supposed threat. In layman’s terms, this Copyright: Shikainah Champion EMDR therapist (please quote this source if you are referencing this article elsewhere) 2023 is what a nightmare is. As one of my EMDR supervisors used to say, “a nightmare is nothing but an incomplete dream”.

Due to the nightmares or even just being jerked into wakefulness in the middle of the night, one’s sleep is disrupted; with overall quality of sleep being quite poor. This would result in feeling tired, irritable and having a lower bandwidth of tolerance to other stressors.

So, EMDR steps in to carry out the BLS from the outside, by way of mimicking REM sleep in a safe setting like a therapy session. This thereby allows the feeling and thinking parts to talk to each other and in a controlled manner, file away the traumatic or stressful material into memories, such that they don’t have an emotional charge anymore. A good session of EMDR would result in a person feeling quite sleepy and relaxed. With time, as all such unprocessed events are processed through EMDR, it should result in an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

Copyright: Shikainah Champion EMDR therapist (please quote this source if you are referencing this article elsewhere) 2023