Will EMDR Erase My Memories?
In 2004, Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey starred in a movie called “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in which the couple, after having broken up, erased each other from their minds. The romantic comedy explores, through a lens of science fiction, memory and our capacity to forget disturbing events from the past. In real life, we don’t have it so easy. But the question of erasing memories sometimes comes up when people think about beginning Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, therapy. To understand why someone would wonder this, and why the answer is no, it helps to understand how our minds respond to traumatic experiences and what EMDR actually does to help individuals heal.
EMDR is a comprehensive psychotherapy, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), that can decrease distress and symptoms related to earlier, disturbing events. When we experience disturbing things in our lives, we experience them differently than pleasant events. Our rational brain goes offline, and the older part of our brain takes over to ensure our survival. You may have heard of the fight/flight response- this is what the older part of our brain activates when we experience a threat to our safety. When this happens, stress hormones are secreted, and our body is ready to fight, flight, or freeze. Because of this activation process, our normal processing is blocked and these events are stored in their original, disturbing state, along with the sights, sounds, emotions, and bodily sensations, that were experienced at the time of the event. This is why we can be “triggered” in our day to day lives when we are reminded of these earlier events- they were never fully processed, and stored efficiently in our brain, the way other memories were. We pick up right where we left off, even though the actual threat has passed and we are no longer in danger.
When going through EMDR therapy, the portions of these earlier memories that are not finished filing in a healthy manner, will be given a chance to become fully processed, so they are no longer stuck in the stressful state. After the processing happens, the original memory may have changed somewhat in the mind of the individual, but it will not disappear. For example, the memory of the experience may take on new meaning, or have additional information that helps it settle into the system efficiently. What may disappear is the fearful or unpleasant emotions, the uncomfortable body sensations, and the negative and limiting conclusions that may have been adopted in the mind of the individual (such as “I am not important’, or “I cannot trust anyone”). In their place will be calmer, more relaxed body sensations, positive emotions such as relief, and positive thoughts such as “I am important” or “I can choose who to trust” may feel more accurate. The original memory may have changed to be less disturbing, but it will not be removed from existence. This is because EMDR facilitates the transformation of a traumatic memory into a historical fact, so that we can be informed by our memories rather than controlled by them. Our innate internal system knows how to move old information to a healthier place, once memories are reprocessed in this way, most people describe, ‘feeling lighter,’ ‘feeling more present,’ or ‘when recalling the event now, it seems farther away.’ We cannot change what has happened to us in the past, but we can change how those events affect us now and in the future.
Traumatic memories are not the only thing that your system may need to re-file. Old beliefs or roadblocks that keep you stuck in life, and current challenges that seem overwhelming, can also be processed to create an easier and happier day-to-day life. If you or someone you know would like to ‘re-file’ any distressing experiences, beliefs or challenges, please contact Coherence Associates, Inc. at 760-942-8663 to navigate your next steps.
Connie Glenn, MS, LMFT
Coherence Associates Inc. (760) 942-8663