Exercise and EMDR – What Kind of Physical Exercise is Best for Your Brain


Earlier this year, the New York Times reported on a study published in the Journal of Physiology (link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP271552/abstract) that looked at which type of exercise would be better for your brain.  More specifically, the study answered the question of which type of exercise would increase brain volume. Other studies have shown that increasing brain volume can provide protection from neurodegenerative (brain shrinking) disorders related to aging, such as dementia.  This study looked at three types of exercise: running, cross-training, and strength training.  As an EMDR therapist, I had an idea of which one would be the better brain builder, and as I read the story my hunch was proven correct.  Let me explain a little bit about EMDR, and then see if you can guess too!

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy, also known as “EMDR”, is form of therapy that facilitate the processing, or digestion, of experiences so that they can be efficiently filed away in your body’s supercomputer (a.k.a. your BRAIN). When an experience has an especially strong emotional component, such as a traumatic event, your brain will make a stronger connection than if there was little emotional response. During this strong emotional reaction, your brain and body can shut off certain parts of your brain to ensure your survival. Surviving is great! However, that experience can stick around as an unprocessed memory which can lead to negative outcomes such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD can show up in the form of triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, hypervigilance, irritability, exaggerated startle response, problems with concentration, and self-destructive behavior. PTSD has been shown to shrink parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain responsible for emotions and memory. EMDR Therapy has been shown to be an effective therapy for treating PTSD, in addition to other diagnoses. EMDR has also been shown to increase hippocampal volume, meaning your brain can actually grow in volume when these traumas are treated.

This makes EMDR an excellent form of therapy to digest things like trauma, when facilitated by a trained and competent therapist who can safely guide a client through the process. At the heart of this facilitated therapy is a process called Alternating Bilateral Stimulation, sometimes referred to as BLS.  The first time this process was discovered, it was through back and forth eye movements, thus the inclusion of the “Eye Movements” in the name of the therapy.  Since that chance discovery in 1989, therapists have found that any alternating left and right stimulation, such as tactile (through the sense of touch) or auditory stimulation, can produce similar effects.

Can you guess which exercise built a better brain now? It was running, which is another example of alternating bilateral stimulation.  The authors of the study, who are not EMDR researchers, explained that the sustained aerobic effort was responsible for the brain growth. My hunch is that walking would produce similar results. You can test this out for yourself too: the next time you feel upset about something, go for a walk.  Just notice what is upsetting you and walk it out, or run if you’d like. If you want to take it up a notch, try talking on the phone to a trusted friend about whatever is bothering you.  You will be processing and exercising at the same time; as you do so, you may notice your problem that was taking up so much space before might appear to be a little smaller. Of course, if you have experienced a traumatic event in your life or suffer from PTSD, speaking with a therapist who can facilitate the EMDR process is the best and safest idea. Call Coherence Associates, Inc. to speak with a caring therapist about how EMDR can help you heal and thrive, at 760-942-8663.


Connie Glenn, MS, IMF #87361

Clinical Intern

Supervised by Sara Gilman, LMFT



To read the New York Times article, go here: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/17/which-type-of-exercise-is-best-for-the-brain/

Exercise and EMDR – What Kind of Physical Exercise is Best for Your Brain
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