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Memory, Trauma, and EMDR

Memories can be a beautiful gift or a haunting nightmare. Most days, we do not pay attention to how much our memories shape daily functioning. Memory affects everything from knowing how to drive, recognizing someone’s face, to having a familiar sense of nausea to a particular stimulus. These memories help us to quickly interpret how to respond to current circumstances. Some memories, however, can feel intrusive and overwhelming, greatly lowering a person’s ability to respond adaptively to a current situation.

Let’s look at an example. As a child, Ethan (fictional character) watched his dad frequently come home drunk. A cascade of chaos and anger ensued in the home. The walls shook as doors were slammed. Ethan would retreat to his room and try to block out the noise, but his body was tense. Now years later, he moved to a rural area where he enjoys watching the farmers busy with planting and harvesting. But he can’t understand why he has the urge to retreat to his room every time they are pulling their equipment down the road. He feels anxious, and his body becomes tense. Finally, he realizes that his body is reacting to the sound of the doors and walls shaking as the farmer’s large equipment vibrates the ground.

This auditory and kinesthetic memory that Ethan has of the walls shaking has been associated in his mind with anxiety and powerlessness that he felt when his parent was drunk and angry. His body learned to react with anxiety to the sound of the walls shaking and to look for an escape route. Although this response probably helped him act quickly as a kid to avoid distressing situations, the anxiety contained in this memory is now limiting his ability to adapt to his current situation. In this scenario, Ethan’s anxiety is not producing major adverse consequences for him. But some memories can be much more limiting, especially if a person has experienced trauma.

The Relationship Between Memory and Trauma

A trauma event is defined as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” through direct experience, being an eye-witness, “learning that the traumatic event(s) occurred to a close family member or close friend,” or “experiencing repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event(s)” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 271).

When trauma occurs, the memory is primarily made of body sensations (e.g. tightness in chest, difficulty breathing) and emotions such as feelings of helplessness, fear, and shame (Van der Kolk, 2014).  This type of memory becomes locked in its original form so that a person who is normally confident and well-spoken can suddenly feel frozen and speechless from fear just as if the trauma were occurring. Every time this occurs, the person’s negative belief(s) about themselves related to the trauma is reinforced (Siegel, 2020). These negative beliefs often have similar themes such as “I am permanently damaged,” “I cannot trust anyone,” or “I have no voice.”

As memories with similar unresolved emotional states accumulate, they become linked together to form a memory network (Shapiro, 2018). To understand this better, imagine that each of these memories is a single Christmas bulb. It would be cumbersome to decorate with only single bulbs. But when they are all strung together, the Christmas bulbs can be plugged in simultaneously and produce more light together. Your brain also wants to be efficient with its energy. So instead of having hundreds and thousands of single memory “bulbs,” it organizes the memories into strings or networks. If you plug in the string, all of the bulbs light up together and are distinct at the same time. Similarly, if a current event triggers or “plugs into” a memory network of unresolved shame, fear, or powerlessness, all of the memories within this network become activated, though often without the person’s awareness of the link between the memories. The person’s fight/flight/freeze response is lit up and channels the person’s energy to do anything necessary to get rid of or “unplug” from the distressing emotions contained in this memory network.

These memory networks should not be assumed to always have trauma as the root. But if trauma has occurred, there is a greater possibility that future experiences will become associated with the trauma and form powerful memory networks.

EMDR as Treatment

So how can memories become less intrusive and lose their potency in a person’s daily life? One of the standard approaches to treatment for PTSD has been exposure therapy, but this approach requires prolonged exposure to high levels of distressing material, and there is danger of re-traumatizing the client. However, in 1987, Francine Shapiro began developing a new intervention called Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) that now has extensive research to back up its effectiveness for treating clients with PTSD, anxiety, and other issues of emotional dysregulation (Shapiro, 2018).

EMDR is based on the principle that the brain is capable of resolving emotional memories under most circumstances, but on occasion, the brain’s processing system becomes “stuck” and begins looping with the emotion-laden memory. It has been suggested that EMDR imitates REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep during which memories are placed in long-term storage.  The counselor typically uses rapid horizontal finger movements while guiding the client to notice various aspects of the memory that he or she wants to address. Between sets of eye movements, the counselor will help gauge with the client if processing is occurring or is stuck. By following the counselor’s fingers, clients can avoid being completely sucked into the memory and re-traumatized. This reprocessing phase of EMDR can be compared to riding a train and watching the scenery of your memory pass by. Watching this memory “scenery” can be distressing initially, but it also allows the client to maintain a safe distance from it. Through the reprocessing, clients are able to shift from negative beliefs such as “I am permanently damaged” to more adaptive beliefs such as “I am resilient” (Shapiro, 2018).

If you have repeatedly become frustrated with yourself for having strong emotional reactions that seem out of place, there is a good chance you are still living out of painful memories that are frozen in time. When these memories can be processed, it opens you up to recognize resources and gain new perspectives. The shame, fear, or powerlessness can be dissipated, and for once, you may feel equipped to develop healthier relationships.

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