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Understanding EMDR: What does it mean to “process” traumatic memories?

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is a therapeutic modality that has been found to be highly effective in the treatment of trauma. EMDR therapy helps individuals reprocess traumatic memories, thereby reducing their associated emotional distress. But what does that mean? And how does it work? In this blog post, we will discuss exactly how it helps individuals heal from traumatic experiences.

What happens when a person experiences trauma?

When someone has a traumatic experience, it often gets incorrectly stored in the brain. Trauma does not have to be a major event. It is anything that is too much for too long, too little for too long, or too much in a short period of time and exceeds our nervous system's ability to cope.

Trauma can cause the nervous system to perceive danger, even when there may not actually be any danger present. Trauma is stored in your body and the memory of the experience can trigger fear responses years later.

"Triggers are doorways to our past experiences that need healing," Dana Carretta-Stein, wrote in The EMDR Therapy Progress Journal.

Triggers can be smells, sounds, times of year or even thoughts. Because the memory is stored incorrectly it can also trigger unexplained physical responses. Examples of this include: chronic pain, panic attacks, brain fog, lightheadedness, flashbacks and more.

What does it mean to have an “unprocessed” memory?

An unprocessed memory is also referred to as a memory that is “stuck” in the brain. This means that a person is unable to make full sense of the experience. When something in the present triggers the same memory network, a person may experience the same physical responses, emotions and feelings.

If you have been traumatized then any time that memory gets triggered your body will react in the same way. For EMDR therapy, it is best to have an understanding of the unprocessed memories to plan out the most optimal treatment.

How does EMDR help “process” these memories?

Processing a traumatic memory does not necessarily mean talking about the experience in detail.

In Phase 1 (History Taking) of EMDR, you begin to list your triggers and increase your awareness of your own nervous system responses.

Phase 2 (Preparation) of EMDR creates the a safe place to evoke awareness for diving into a past memory and staying in the present moment at the same time.

In Phase 3 (Target Assessment), your therapist and you will decide on the target to start with and go through some questions on what the memory feels like in your body.

In Phase 4 (Reprocessing) of EMDR, your therapist will have you bring to mind an image, corresponding emotions, and physical sensations related to how the memory appears in the present. EMDR uses bilateral stimulation (BLS) to engage both the left and right side of the brain. This allows us to digest the experience that is “stuck”. Meaning, we are able to process the information that is useful, and discard the information that is not useful or helpful.

Through BLS we are able to activate our unconscious which allows learning and growth to take place. Thoughts and information are integrated with other memories to create a more adaptive and usable memory. This will help the emotions, sensations and thoughts to finally release.

What to expect after processing a traumatic experience in EMDR Therapy?

The goal of reprocessing traumatic memories is not to “erase” it from the brain. No amount of therapy can take away a bad experience from someone’s past but therapy can reduce the impact these memories have in the present.

Before reprocessing, present-day triggers may cause a person to experience intense emotions, physical sensations and or negative beliefs about oneself- as if they were still experiencing the trauma in the present.

After reprocessing a person may still have experiences that trigger the old memory, but instead of feeling “hijacked” by the experience, instead you can feel neutral and have a different perspective. The steps after reprocessing are just as important (Phase 5,6,7,8) as you will continue to reinforce the positive beliefs formed in relation to your memory and be mindful of your body's reaction.

When the processing of a difficult experience is complete, it will no longer feel so distressing and you will be better able to cope with this type of event in the future. As such, EMDR therapy can significantly reduce your vulnerability to experiencing negative emotions and flashbacks about the past.

With EMDR, you are able to go back and work through traumatic memories that have contributed to present day symptoms and cause the negative way you are feeling.  After working through a stressful event, your brain actually rewires to function differently.  

EMDR helps you leave the past in the past so it no longer affects your daily life.

Contact us today at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling to see if EMDR therapy is a good fit for you.


Annabella Lipson is a Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.

She enjoys working with young adults & adults who are dealing with stress, anxiety, grief, PTSD and other challenges.

Annabella incorporates a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR Therapy, Ego-state Interventions and Mindfulness practices with her clients.


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