Reprocessing Memories with EMDR

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Unlike other recent forms of psychotherapy that focus entirely on the present, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) helps you recall critical incidents of the past that are still causing you pain. In that sense, it resembles traditional psychoanalytic therapy, but its methods are completely different.

Instead of open-ended talk sessions, EMDR uses short-term techniques to draw on the healing power of the mind’s memory system. The basic idea is that the mind reacts to every highly charged experience with a neural memory system that helps process the event as well as the thoughts and feelings associated with it. When that system fails to work, memories remain stuck with all the painful emotions and beliefs you had at the time of the original events.

Because EMDR requires the guidance of a therapist trained in this technique, I haven’t considered it in the self-help category. But Francine Shapiro, who developed EMDR, has a new book, Getting Past Your Past, that describes how to use certain aspects of the method on your own.

Adaptive Memory and Healing

As Shapiro describes it, the memory processing system transforms potentially disturbing memories into learning experiences.

The painful emotions, beliefs and sensations are related to other experiences and put into perspective. They lose their ability either to overwhelm us or to unconsciously influence present behavior.

The memory can then be stored along with others and recalled later to help you recognize the meaning of similar events when they happen. When it works well, this processing is an essential part of daily well-being, enabling you to understand and adapt to whatever you encounter.

But some events are too powerful or overwhelming to process in the usual way. The system can stop working, and the memory is stored with the same feelings and thought patterns you had at the time of the original event.

In an extreme form, the event isn’t recalled as a memory at all but is relived as if it were occurring all over again in the present. That is the nightmare that PTSD victims have to live with.

In less extreme cases, the mind partly processes the experience but in a way that allows the difficult feelings and reactions to emerge unconsciously in response to triggers in later, unrelated events. We form patterns of reacting that don’t work, but we are not sure why.

How EMDR Works

EMDR guides you to bring back the earliest memories that established the harmful pattern and stimulates the memory system to do its work of reprocessing. Once that happens, the memory loses its fearful influence and becomes just another event to be recalled when appropriate.

Francine Shapiro discovered this capacity of the mind by noticing the effect on her emotions of certain eye movements. After establishing the validity of her chance discovery, she chose the name EMDR for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. As it turns out, the key is not so much in the eyes as in an alternating bilateral stimulation that can be achieved in several ways.

It can come from shifting your eyes back and forth, or from alternating right and left taps on your thighs or shoulders or from feeling a slight electric stimulus that shifts rhythmically from the palm of one hand to the other. If this is done as you are focusing on parts of remembered experience, the mind can perform its reprocessing and relearning function.

The method sounds simple, but it requires the careful guidance of a therapist. You need an EMDR specialist who can work closely with you to monitor your reactions, adjust the focus of your memory and gauge how far to go in each session.

Finding a Safe Place

There are some aspects of this approach, however, that can be used on your own. Shapiro walks you through the methods you can use in the early phases of EMDR.

These are designed to help you identify the memories and situations that most often evoke problems, but you need a lot of preparation before looking at the negative side.

The first step is to cultivate the positive memory networks to give yourself a new touchstone of safety and wellness. You practice these frequently until you can automatically return to them.

One method is called the Safe Place Technique. You summon up a memory of a positive experience you’ve had in the past, one that evokes feelings of calm, peacefulness or safety. It’s important that this not be connected to anything negative.

You focus on an image of that scene and get a sense of the feeling it evokes and pay attention to where in your body you especially feel the sense of wellness. Then you pick a word that captures the scene and that you can use to evoke it as shorthand.

The idea is to practice evoking the feelings with the word and image so that you can recall that experience almost automatically. There are other skills you can learn, including breathing and tapping techniques, that give you different ways of getting back to this state of calmness.

Knowing When to Find a Therapist

Since the memory system that EMDR works with is so basic to every aspect of living, Shapiro illustrates how the method can help with your sense of self, fear, problems relating to body image, attention and relationships.

But there are limits to the work you can do on your own. She repeatedly cautions, however, to stop whenever you come upon memories that are especially painful to deal with.

The fear and negative reactions they evoke are the signs that they need to be dealt with in the structured setting provided by a trained therapist.

In the last 25 years, EMDR has gone from a promising experiment to a widely used therapy supported by extensive evidence in controlled trials. It may not be as familiar as cognitive-based therapies, but it seems to go to the source of negative thinking and belief rather than focus only on methods for changing the thought patterns.

Even if you choose not to explore EMDR by yourself, the Getting Past Your Past is an excellent introduction to both the therapy and the way the mind uses memory to maintain well-being. I highly recommend it.

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