What do EMDR, Running, and Drumming Have in Common?

Nope, this isn’t a strange riddle where someone is found in the desert in a scuba suit. The answer to the question posed above is actually pretty simple: brain integration.

What is that? Excellent question; I am glad you asked. As you may know, we have two hemispheres of the brain. Neuroscience is a relatively young field, and we are continuing to learn more about the complexity of the brain and its function with time and as research evolves. We do know that there are different roles played by different sides and areas of the brain, and that integrating neural networks appears to be helpful in resolving traumatic memories.

The success of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) in treating trauma and mental health challenges teaches us that alternating right- and left-brain stimulation, via visual, auditory, or tactile experience, helps facilitate emotional processing. Through the simple act of holding something that buzzes between your right and left hand, or listening to something shifting from your right to left ear, a memory that was once charged with emotion can become less distressing. During the process, it is common for relevant associations to arise, for memories of thoughts and body sensations to arise. With support, this process can facilitate lasting and integrated healing.

Right-left brain stimulation may sound like a scary, science fiction-like process, but I assure you there is no electricity involved in this type of therapy. Your body receives input in the form of sound, touch, or sight, without any added energy.

Along with helping us process emotions, EMDR can help build up positive memories, experience, thoughts, and feelings. We call this resourcing, and use imagined or real resources to cultivate feelings of peace, nurturing, protection, and wisdom. In addition to and as part of processing negative experiences, it is crucial to cultivate the positive, sometimes the opposite of what occurred in the experience of trauma.

Think about your life for a moment and ask yourself: when do I engage in an activity that engages my right and left brain in alternating rhythm? How do I feel before, during, and after the fact? How can I incorporate this information into my healing path?

How do walking, running, and drumming factor in? Think about it for a moment. When you walk, run, or drum, you are using your body in a rhythmic way, alternating the stimulation or use of your right and left brain throughout the activity. Have you ever gone on a hike or run and felt that you were sorting through your thoughts, developing new insights, or becoming less distressed about something? We know that exercise has many benefits; EMDR highlights for us some of the mental and emotional benefits.

There are a million ways to alternate right- and left-brain activation, including dance, yoga, and some tai chi moves. People have naturally gravitated toward right-left movements in many healing rituals across the world. Think of how many sacred rituals involve drums, movement, or voyages on foot. Understanding brain integration, plasticity, and resilience gives us some insight into why these rituals have been effective and why they continue to be passed down through generations.

Think about your life for a moment and ask yourself: when do I engage in an activity that engages my right and left brain in alternating rhythm? How do I feel before, during, and after the fact? How can I incorporate this information into my healing path?

If you are looking to heal from specific traumatic memories, I highly recommend working with a skilled EMDR professional who can provide structure and guide you toward health and resolution. Consider how your own choices outside of therapy can support your process as well. Perhaps you will choose to walk or bike to your therapist’s office this week, or do a little dance after your session. Whatever you choose, may it serve your healing and integration.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa Danylchuk, EdM, LMFT, E-RYT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Candy

    September 2nd, 2015 at 8:38 AM

    Exercise can be a great way to work through some of the kinks that life has thrown at you… I am sure that for others EMDR does the same exact thing.

  • Mel F.

    February 23rd, 2019 at 6:18 AM

    Have you done EMDR? It’s extremely different than exercise.

  • Art O.

    February 24th, 2019 at 3:50 AM

    Dear Mel
    Routledge have published my new book Sensorimotor-Focused EMDR. Recent research in Nature February 2019 confirms scientifically my observation that continuous bilateral stimulation of the Superior colliculus via the peripheral nervous system activation of the brainstem triggers spontaneous eye movements which triggers pontine geniculate occipital brain waves. These then produce REM like sleep patterns which integrate emotional right brain with rational left brain pathways. This appears to be facilitated by corpus callosum networks. Further details on artomalley.com

  • Jeff

    September 5th, 2015 at 11:42 AM

    My daughter has worked with a trained counselor with doing EMDR exercises for a while now and it has made such a difference in how she perceives not just herself but her anxiety levels in general are so much more in control now than they have been in quite a while.

  • Melissa

    September 6th, 2015 at 10:56 AM

    I agree with everything in this article except for the part about drumming. EMDR did everything for me that this article states and I attribute it for saving my life. I feel much more empowered now because of it. When I go for a walk or a run (& even sometimes in the shower), I am relaxed and my mind has the chance to wander and I do come up with great ideas during those times. But in contrast, I drum in a band and I have to concentrate very hard to stay focused and NOT let my mind wander. I am thinking about coordinating 3-4 different body movements at once, plus thinking about how I will need to change these movements next in the song. If my mind strays much at all, I am guaranteed to mess up.

  • Estelle

    September 6th, 2015 at 6:10 PM

    They are only referring to entrainment drumming in 4/4 with the same repeating patterns. Think drum circle, chanting, and ancient rituals. Not western drumming or percussion. Trust me. I am a neurologic music therapist.

  • Karen C.

    December 9th, 2016 at 6:30 PM

    I am a Speech Pathologist. I obtain training a method called ILS. integratedlistening.com This approach states that certain beats in the music can be used effectively for sensory integration. Extensive researched was done on this system.

  • Mary

    March 24th, 2017 at 10:23 AM

    I think the author is referring to ritual drumming, as in a drumming circle, rather than passing drums in a band. A healing drum circle is a wonderful, spiritual experience.

  • Jessica

    April 20th, 2017 at 8:07 AM

    I’m a board certified music therapist and a skilled EMDR therapist. Playing an instrument for which you have more formal training or play for performance purposes is going to inherently be more difficult to be mindful as your prefrontal cortex is more activated in concentrating on how you are coordinating with others, if your skill is up-to-par, the performance atmosphere (audience, nerves, expectations, etc). So, you are correct, it would be more difficult to be mindful when drumming in a band for performance purposes because you are trying hard not to let your mind wander. Try playing a different kind of drum, like a Djembe, or Doumbek and let your mind go where it wants, just as in EMDR, and then you will achieve the same benefits.

  • Sam

    June 14th, 2017 at 7:01 PM

    Do you think alternating bilateral stimulation (via EMDR devises) can enhance learning? It would make sense that putting the brain in a fully integrated state would increase cognition. This is the theory behind Paul Denison’s Brain Gym activities and of course demonstrated in John Ratey’s work with movement.

  • Cheryl

    September 9th, 2015 at 11:39 AM

    I could not agree more with this article. I spent time in EMDR therapy and although it did help I feel drumming has been more therapeutic for me to heal my post traumatic stress. I am currently a percussionist with a local Kirtan group. The Sanskrit chanting has also released a lot of the past wounds, allowing me to stay in the present moment. I started at age 50 attending local drum circles and started taking lessons from a percussionist. It has open my heart and paths that include volunteering at a non profit art and music center teaching children, special needs and adults to play. It was my life saver!

  • Debi

    February 1st, 2016 at 3:04 PM

    I jus began therapy again for ComplexPTSD. This therapist uses EMDR which I have never done. I am terrified.

  • Tammy

    March 22nd, 2017 at 8:51 AM

    I hope by now you have had the opportunity to have positive experiences with EMDR.

  • Daisymae

    March 23rd, 2017 at 3:29 PM

    I don’t know about the drumming but EMDR is fantastic therapy for trauma including post natal depression and traumatic births. It’s a life changer.

  • Dr Art

    March 24th, 2017 at 5:18 AM

    I was part of a Perinatal and Infant Mental Health Team in England where EMDR was combined with other dynamic psychotherapy. mothers who had traumatic births and or post natal depression often developed insecure attachment towards their infant or young child. Resolving the traumatic stress allowed the watch wait and wonder intervention of dyadic therapy involving mother and infant to reestablish a secure attachment.

  • Emily

    February 2nd, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    I thought I had left everything behind and moved on. Nope. Turns out, the emotions were just buried deep within for decades. Since they surfaced over a year ago (when I identified the root of my unhappiness), it’s been hard to shake them off.

    EMDR gives me hope.

  • Lisa

    February 25th, 2016 at 1:49 PM

    It is normal to feel both hopeful and terrified when facing overwhelming memories. Debi, know that you dont have to do everything at once and one important piece of EMDR is containment – working on things in a specific and contained way. Wishing you the best!

  • Susan W

    May 11th, 2016 at 10:35 PM

    How to find these therapies/therapist. Esp. Drumming?

  • Carla C.

    September 9th, 2016 at 7:37 PM

    google HealthRHYTHMS facilitators in your area, or Music Therapy in your area. Both are trained and qualified (especially a Music Therapist—4 yr. degree minimum; heavily immersed in the Psychology field, Music field, &Neurology) to use rhythm to address areas of function.

  • Lisa

    May 12th, 2016 at 7:45 PM

    Sue – there is an EMDR association EMDRIA, you can find EMDR providers on their website. As far as drumming goes, it is more common in cultures outside of the US, but you an also search for music therapists and ask about how they incorporate rhythm.

  • Laura

    May 13th, 2016 at 6:55 PM

    Unfortunately, EMDR can be damaging to the thought process when not performed by a qualified train professional in EMDR therapy. My friend whose has suffered from a lifetime of trauma i.e. 2 rapes, child abuse , hate crimes, he’s transgendered went through EDMR sessions and just doesn’t think the same. When I’ve had convos with him, he’ll focus on a point that although deals with the subject in discussion, but, is often not the point of the convo causing him to “miss the point” and causes the discussion to spin out of control. It’s frustrating for him and me and others, causes arguments and he pushes people away from him b/c he comes of as a pain in the ass. But, he always accuses the other party of missing the point. He admits he unknowingly went through extended sessions with this therapist who was not well versed with ENDR therapy. It becomes obvious to new friends, for him, that his thinking is somewhat “off”. It makes me angry b/c he is such a wonderful person and leads an incredible life, but, some of his mannerisms can be toxic and some choose to not be around him.

  • Jim M.

    May 14th, 2016 at 6:02 AM

    Debi, It makes sense that part of you would feel terrified about visiting your trauma in an unknown way. If you have a trusting relationship with your therapist, it should be helpful to tell them you are scared so that they can address that. If you do not have a trusting relationship with them, you are not prepared to do trauma work. Also, EMDR should never be re-traumatizing.

    Susan W. , most cities will have drum circles listed in Meetup group directories.

  • Melinda

    September 9th, 2016 at 7:42 PM

    Just as EMDR should only be provided by a trained professional, so should music therapy! Visit musictherapy.org!

  • lins

    September 9th, 2016 at 9:09 PM

    emdr..works well to lessen fear..brings your thoughts down to a normal level..it is done over 12 weeks or more each time..the stressful situation I..fear or trauma u have suffered..is released..slowly..each session..and can save you years of talk therapy..helps soldiers with ptsd greatly in a short amount of time..

  • Ruth

    December 5th, 2016 at 10:17 PM

    Interesting. I myself suffer from PTSD and my son is on the autism spectrum. We both have a lot of anxiety, and easily frustrated. I’ve noticed the therapies that help me also help him. Has EMDR ever been used to help integrate right and left brain function for children and adults on the spectrum? If so, was it beneficial? Thanks for the great article.

  • Lisa Danylchuk

    December 9th, 2016 at 3:47 PM

    Great question, Ruth. There are lots of questions but, to my knowledge, not a lot of answers in this area. Here is one article that explored the connection: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092493381602085X

  • Art O.

    January 21st, 2017 at 9:42 AM

    Dear Lisa
    I welcome your comments in relation to the benefits of bilateral stimulation. This is an essential component of EMDR. Howe very over the last 8 years I have developed BART psychotherapy. This stands for Bilateral Affective Reprocessing of Thoughrs as a dynamic form of psychother app. It combines the key ingredients of EMDR with somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy together with mindfulness and trauma focused CBT. My research on intensive treatment “beyond the art of BART “provides detailed scientific evidence for the validity of this method. ISSTD gave me the platform to present a workshop in Montreal back in 2011. My book the Art of BART was published by karnacbooks. com and it is available from Amazon. The second edition due out later this year will outline the links between the gut brain and mesenteric science as well as recently discovered connections between immune system and meninges and between the amygdala and bone marrow where stress causes cardiovascular disease. BART psychotherapy is the only approach to incorporate these findings and integrate heartbrain and headbrain with gut instinct. For future details logonto artomalley.com

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