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From childhood humiliation to PTSD: How EMDR frees your brain from the past

“I just wanna move on and not think about it anymore, but for some reason I just can’t...” Some things we’d rather forget. As a therapist, I often hear some version of this statement. Even if you don’t have all the symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), you may still be affected by upsetting or difficult experiences. It may keep running through your mind even when you try to push it away. Or maybe the anger or fear or guilt or pain just won’t go away. EMDR therapy (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) can help you truly let go of the past and move on to a happier life.

Events that Can Have a Lasting Impact on You

We often associate PTSD with big things like war or natural disasters. But smaller-scale events can cause a similar response in your brain. I help people get past things like:

  • Death of a loved one

  • Miscarriage

  • End of a relationship

  • Accident or injury

  • Physical assault or sexual assault

  • Upsetting or scary experiences

  • Memories from childhood such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse

  • Memories of feeling rejected, excluded, humiliated, or betrayed

  • Exposure to traumatic events such as with first responders

  • Feeling "stuck" in anger, guilt, grief, anxiety or fear

When to Get Help

Here are some signs that your brain is stuck in the past and may benefit from EMDR therapy to get past a negative memory or event:

  • Inability to stop thinking about it

  • Intrusive images in your mind

  • Overwhelming feelings of anger, guilt, anxiety or fear

  • Heightened startle response

  • Dreams or nightmares about it

  • Lowered self-esteem

  • Feeling that you’re not safe anymore

  • Sudden fear or anxiety provoked by “triggers” or reminders of the event

  • Avoidance of reminders or similar activities/places/situations

Why Some Memories Get"Stuck" in Your Brain

You may wonder why you just can’t let it go and move on. Why does something that may have happened a long time ago (even 20 years ago) still bother you? It’s because memories of upsetting events are stored differently in your brain from “normal” memories. Let’s say you have a memory of a traumatic car accident from 10 years ago and a memory of going to the grocery store last week. Even though the car accident was 10 years ago, if you think about it now, you can still “see” the other car right before it hit you, you can still “hear” the tires squeal, and you can still “smell” burnt rubber. It feels like the experience is tattooed on your brain. On the other hand, if you think about going to the grocery store last week, even though it was much more recent, you probably don’t think, “I can still see the lights, hear the shopping carts, and smell the kale.” The two memories are stored differently in your brain.

This is by design. Your brain’s job is to keep you safe, not make you happy. Emotions are a cue to your brain to pay attention. They signal information that is potentially important to your survival or safety. Since we are a social species that depends on one another to survive, events that threaten our perceived social acceptance or belonging also feel scary (e.g. bullying, teasing, humiliation, betrayal). So, when you feel very upset or afraid, memories are stored more vividly in your brain. All the sensory information is stored intact. That way, when a similar sound, or smell, or situation comes up later, the same feelings of fear can be quickly triggered to get you to run away to safety. The "danger" message activated by the "trigger," goes straight from your five senses to the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system). The "danger" message bypasses the logical part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), so that your fight or flight response can be activated quickly, without thinking. This shortcut is designed to help you avoid similar danger in the future.

How EMDR can free your brain from the past

This shortcut from your senses to your emotional brain works great in dangerous situations. However, once you are in a relatively safe environment, it is no longer helpful for you to keep being “triggered” into a fight or flight response. In EMDR therapy, we process upsetting memories so that they are no longer stored with vivid details that can be triggered later. In research, it takes about 4-6 EMDR sessions to process through each individual upsetting event. During EMDR, the memory moves through the hypothalamus in your brain, which puts the memory in its proper time and place, in the past. Once that happens, the upsetting memory feels more like the grocery store memory. You can still remember it, but it no longer bothers you when you think about it. More importantly, it is no longer triggered in the present without you realizing it. Things that used to upset you, don’t upset you anymore. You start to feel safer, calmer, and better about yourself. You can be free to focus on the things that are important to you now. To learn more read Getting Past Your Past. Schedule an intake session to get started on an individualized plan to calm your mind and let go of the past.


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