Getting Past Your Past--How Trauma Keeps Us Stuck

How an outlandish-sounding therapy, founded by a doctoral student on a walk in the park, became the gold standard for trauma recovery.

Happy Wednesday, friend!

You are reading The How to Live Newsletter: Your weekly guide offering insights from psychology to help you navigate life’s challenges, one Wednesday at a time.

 🎁 PLEASE CONSIDER A GIFT TODAY. 🎁

For almost three years, I’ve offered this newsletter free of charge.

If my work adds to your day, provides wisdom or solace, now is a great time to consider an annual or monthly recurring DONATION to help sustain this project, and offset the not inconsiderable costs of creating and maintaining such a resource and service. 

Every issue of How to Live is made with love and relies on reader-support to operate and run. Without your help, this newsletter cannot continue. Thank you for your support, and patronage.

🙏🏼 ❤️ THANK YOU 🙏🏼 ❤️

When the Past is Present—Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Forty-five years ago, in 1979, Francine Shapiro, an NYU doctoral candidate, was studying how external events influenced the behavior of characters in 19th-century English literature.

She envisioned a promising career as a literary critic and scholar. However, as she began her dissertation on the poetry of Thomas Hardy, her future plans were derailed when she received a devastating cancer diagnosis.

Shapiro's priorities and perspective rapidly shifted. Rather than continuing to focus on how fictional characters' inner lives were impacted by external events, she became consumed by a more pressing question: How do external stressors impact living people? Do the environment, daily struggles, and emotional injuries genuinely influence the mind and body?

In other words, what caused her illness?

While literature was Shapiro's primary academic focus, she always had a keen interest in psychology. Recently, she had become intrigued by the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), a subfield of psychosomatic medicine that studies the interaction between the nervous system, immune system, and the relationship between mental processes and health.

The idea that stress could potentially influence disease states fascinated Shapiro, and led her to wonder whether there might be psychological or physiological methods that could help balance or restore physical well-being.

Upon receiving her cancer diagnosis, Shapiro realized that pursuing methods for health and healing had become far more crucial to her than the study of 19th-century literature.

So, she left New York to attend workshops and seminars exploring the mind-body connection and psychological interventions, and decided to switch disciplines, enrolling in a doctoral program in clinical psychology to formally study the intersection of mental and physical health.

Photo of Francine Shapiro, EMDR Institute

By 1987, Shapiro was deep into her clinical psychology doctoral program.

As someone training to be a therapist, she used her mind and body as a personal laboratory for discovering new techniques and interventions.

THE DISCOVERY

One afternoon, struggling to shake off some disturbing, intrusive thoughts, she decided to clear her head with a walk in the park. As she walked, she realized that her painful thoughts were dissipating.

When she went to retrieve and re-engage with her upsetting thoughts, she was stunned to find they’d lost their intense hold over her.

She hadn't done anything special except walk.

Or, had she?

Upon closer inspection, Shapiro realized her eyes had been darting back and forth in a saccadic eye movement pattern while the thoughts lost their intensity.

Did the eye movements impact the strength of her thoughts?

She decided to test it. She re-engaged the distressing thought while deliberately shifting her eyes in the same lateral movement pattern.

Remarkably, the upsetting memory lessened in vividness and emotional intensity.

Eager to explore this further, Shapiro began testing her eye movement method on friends. While some could control their own eye movements, others struggled, so she moved her finger horizontally back and forth, and had them focus on those movements. It worked - her friends all reported a reduction of distress.

When some participants stopped progressing at a certain point, Shapiro began incorporating additional therapeutic techniques to overcome stuck points and advance the healing process.

She had inadvertently stumbled upon what would become her dissertation topic and, more importantly, the genesis of a groundbreaking new treatment that would become the gold standard for trauma recovery - Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Fortuitously, in 1990, the mental health field had just begun formally diagnosing and recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an extremely debilitating psychiatric disorder whose symptoms persist long after the traumatic event itself.

Shapiro wondered if her novel eye movement method could help people struggling with longstanding traumatic memories. She volunteered to test her techniques on veterans at an outreach center and watched with astonishment as memories that had haunted them for decades dissipated within moments of using the eye movements.

What exactly was happening here?

Upon closer examination, Shapiro understood that she’d invented and discovered a connection between rapid eye movements and how memories are processed and stored. This connection led her to understand that everything we learn and experience - all sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and fears from our earliest moments to the present - gets physically encoded into complex neural networks across the brain.

All our deeply personal information that we are not consciously thinking about or remembering at any given moment gets stored in the unconscious mind.

These unconscious memories contain our feelings, beliefs, and interpretations about the world and ourselves. However, the conscious mind remains unaware of the vast storage of information held in the unconscious. Because we have this repository of embodied memories, any of them can be unconsciously retrieved and re-experienced at any time, even when we don't purposefully try to recall them.

Shapiro realized that unconscious memories we cannot deliberately access continue to wield profound influence over our point of view and inform how we perceive and feel about every situation - essentially, the unconscious mind acts as the "showrunner" of our entire life experience.

The striking thing is that unconscious memories don’t differentiate between past and present. All memories feel current and alive in the moment. 

All moments are now.

This is why seemingly innocuous situations in the present can "trigger" reactivation of negative memories from the past. The person then unconsciously re-experiences the current situation through the distorted lens of that past experience as if the threat is still present and real, even when objectively there is no actual danger.

However, Shapiro's eye movement technique, which she coined "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing" (EMDR), was not without controversy and critics from the start. Both she and her methods were initially mocked, with critics in psychology and scientific communities dismissing EMDR as bogus pseudoscience.

While some psychologists became convinced of its efficacy, many in the scientific mainstream remained committed to the stance that EMDR was simply conventional exposure therapy with the nonsensical addition of eye movements - implying the eye movements themselves were superfluous and valueless.

Dr. Richard McNally, a trauma expert at Harvard and an early fervent EMDR critic, wrote in a 1999 article for the Journal of Anxiety Disorders that EMDR was strikingly reminiscent of the outdated "Mesmerism" technique - an early precursor to hypnosis. However, McNally has since changed his stance, acknowledging EMDR as a valid and reliable approach supported by an accumulating evidence base.

Indeed, EMDR has become an internationally recognized treatment, with the World Health Organization designating it as a first-choice, empirically-supported therapy for PTSD as of 2013. What began as Shapiro's serendipitous personal discovery has transformed into a powerful clinical intervention.

When, in our present-day life, we react or behave in ways that are out of proportion to the situation at hand, and the reaction can be traced back to an early memory that continues to hold the emotions, charge, and belief we had at the time the memory was formed, psychologists consider these memories to be “unprocessed.”

When we are battery-operated by painful memories, we suffer needlessly. We feel inadequate when we’re immensely capable; we feel like a failure when we’re succeeding; we feel devastated by minor conflict.

These experiences are symptomatic of agonizing unprocessed memories in our unconscious mind.

The brain's Information Processing System normally processes and digests disturbing experiences for learning. EMDR targets unprocessed negative memories, metabolizing the pain, discarding unhelpful "nutrients" and integrating useful ones.

This is the function of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and why getting enough sleep is vital. During REM sleep, it’s believed that the brain processes all information and learning that took place that day; your dreams are like a daily diary in scenes and images.

Credit: Learn Upon

After your brain has finished processing the new information, it turns into a memory and is ready to be introduced to all the old memories that contain useful information that the new memory can learn from.

Think of it like catching a friend up on the events of your life. The new memory learns which old memories are useful, and which to discard, and that information gets stored in the brain to be used as a guide when it’s needed.

This explains how we’re able to handle being confronted by hard and scary things—we rely on all the useful, processed memories of how we successfully handled similar situations in the past.

Unprocessed memories are the source of our pain—processed memories are the basis for our mental health.

When negative events go unprocessed due to overwhelming distress or interrupted processing, the memory remains unintegrated, separate, and unresolved.

It stores exactly as experienced, with sensations and feelings undigested. Isolated from other memories providing perspective, it stays "stuck" unable to adapt or evolve, awaiting triggers.

The memory gets stored exactly as it was experienced, and the sensations and feelings that were attached to the original event do not get digested and understood.

It can’t adapt or be more useful because it lives in isolation, without access to the library of stored memories that act as a springboard for growth. Rather than learning from the experience, it lives in the brain like a bully who refuses to change, grow up, or evolve, constantly waiting to be triggered so it can act out.

The memory gets trapped at the age the Big or Little T trauma* occurred. This is why, as adults, instead of remaining calm, we can suddenly explode, or why the appearance of certain people can make us so uncomfortable, and we can feel like children.

*(There is a fallacy that we can only be traumatized by big, overwhelming, violent events. In therapeutic circles, significant events are known as “Big T” traumas, but every one of us suffers from “small t” traumas of everyday life like the breakup of a relationship, the loss of a job, an argument you witnessed, the nightly news, the sustained slights in childhood, etc.)

These abrupt reactions are unprocessed memories from childhood, stuck in time, keeping our past forever present.

It’s for these reasons that “time doesn’t heal all wounds” and why you can be stunted by feelings that are decades old. Unprocessed memories are frozen and without the proper attention, they can wreak havoc on your personal life, emotional life, and physical wellbeing.Most suffering stems from around 10-20 key unprocessed memories.

When we endure traumas, the event becomes encoded with a critique we have about ourselves based on the event that caused the suffering. This is called a negative cognition.

For example: Imagine if your emotional needs went ignored for your entire childhood. The negative cognition that you attach to that trauma might be “I’m invisible” or “I don’t matter” or “I’m insignificant.”

Whatever the negative belief or persistent problem that is finding you “acting out” or stuck, or depressed, is not the cause of your suffering; it’s a symptom of an unprocessed memory.

There are generally about 10 to 20 unprocessed memories that are responsible for most of the pain and suffering in most of our lives.

Francine Shapiro

HOW IT WORKS

EMDR is used to process the memories that are wreaking havoc on our lives. It does this by linking the REM method used to metabolize the events of the day during sleep to episodic memories from our life.

EMDR takes the original episodic memory that is causing pain and manually integrates it, so it can make the necessary connections to transform it into a useful long-term memory, where it gets stored in its changed form.

When you go to an EMDR session, the therapist will help you identify the past experiences that are contributing to your current issue and what is needed for the future.

The wonderful part about EMDR therapy is that you do not need to talk about the disturbing event in detail. Before you begin the process, you will be asked to conjure a safe place in your mind.

Perhaps it's a place you’ve been before in your life, or even in a recurring dream. You might be asked to imagine that all the people you love and trust have come together for you, drowning you with their love. This will be the place you can come to when you become overwhelmed by the process.

When you begin, you will be guided to focus on the problems you are currently experiencing and their associated early memories, or “Touchstone Memories.” Then, you’ll be asked what the most disturbing part was, and to find an image that represents the worst part of the event: the way a person looked or sounded.

If there is no image, you can just think of the worst part, and rate your discomfort on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most distressing. The next step is to identify the negative cognition that got paired with the event, and, as you hold the image and negative cognition in your mind, you’ll be able to see what physical sensations arise in the body.

At this point, you’ll be asked to imagine the scene playing out as it did, and either the clinician will do bilateral movements with their hand, or you might watch a moving horizontal beam of light for about 30 seconds.

Then you’ll be asked what came up. The process will repeat a couple more times, presenting you with specific questions, and leading you to either play out the scene as you remember it or fill it in with what you wish had happened. When the cycle is completed, you’ll be asked where you land on the 1 to10 scale.

The goal is to get as close to 1 as you can. One of the unique and revolutionary traits of EMDR is that, unlike talk therapy in which a client can stay for decades, this kind of therapy can resolve problems quickly.

Oftentimes people can feel relief after the first session, but a standard recommendation is for at least eight visits.

CONSIDERATIONS

What I have learned as an adult is that we are all powered by our childhood wounds. Those of us with less wounding seem to fare better than those of us with more. EMDR proposes a solution, and the miracle is that it actually works.

The next time we encounter a situation where we are overreacting, or we come up against yet another moment where we always overreact, let’s take a minute and ask ourselves to recall when we first had this feeling and what it made us believe about ourselves.

When we begin making the connections between the origin of particular emotional states, we can become better equipped at separating ourselves from the negative cognition.

We’ll begin to see that our present-day overreactions happen because we are responding to the world from the perspective of a child. These are the moments that Francine Shapiro would say, “The past is present.”

Her legacy is to help all wounds heal so that we can experience life as we’re living it, and not from the perspective of our childhood selves. We owe it to her, and to ourselves, to learn more about this method.

This is a video for self-administering EMDR, which I don’t recommend for big emotional wounds, only for smaller things, like being scared of cockroaches. For big emotions, please consult a professional.

What about you? Have you ever done EMDR therapy? Did it work for you? Tell me in the comments.

Until next week I will remain…

Amanda

FIND AN EMDR CLINICIAN IN YOUR STATE 👇

VITAL INFO:

Nope, I am not a licensed therapist or medical professional. I am simply a person who struggled with undiagnosed mental health issues for over two decades and spent 23 years in therapy learning how to live. Now, I'm sharing the greatest hits of what I learned to spare others from needless suffering.

Most, but not all, links are affiliate, which means I receive a small percentage of the price at no cost to you, which goes straight back into the newsletter.

💋 Don't keep How to Live a secret: Share this newsletter with friends looking for insight.

❤️ New here? Subscribe!

🙋🏻‍♀️ Email me with questions, comments, or topic ideas! [email protected]

🥲 Not in love? 👇

Join the conversation

or to participate.