Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) helps people who feel stuck in the past. The foundation of this therapy is unprocessed memories, which cause negative emotions and reactions in the present moment.
“EMDR therapy targets the unprocessed memories that contain the negative emotions, sensations, and beliefs,” writes Dr Francine Shapiro in Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques From EMDR Therapy. “By activating the brain’s information processing system, the old memories can be ‘digested.’ What is useful is learned, what’s useless is discarded, and the memory is now stored in a way that is no longer damaging.”
Here, I briefly describe how EMDR therapy works and share tips for getting unstuck from Shapiro’s book.
How EMDR Therapy Helps When You’re Stuck in the Past
A couple weeks before I read this book, a social worker at a hospital in Vancouver told me how she used EMDR therapy to help an elderly fellow overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. He was having nightmares about World War 2 – for the first time in 70 years! He is a 92 year old man who is intellectually and emotionally healthy (or he was, until he started having nightmares out of the blue). Suddenly, he was stuck in the past.
The social worker used EMDR therapy with him, and after two sessions he was “cured.” His nightmares went away, and he stopped struggling with post-traumatic stress as quickly as he started.
How Your Brain Helps You Get Past the Past
Your brain is hardwired to process the information, wishes, and learning that you encounter every day. Much of this information processing occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. After your brain processes information, you are better able to handle situations, people, and emotions.
But, your brain doesn’t process all events and information equally. “Disturbing experiences, whether major traumas or other kinds of upsetting events, can overwhelm the system,” writes Shapiro in Getting Past Your Past. She explains that your brain can’t make the internal connections it needs to find resolution, so that past memory directly and negatively affects your current situation.
So, regarding the elderly World War 2 veteran who is suddenly experiencing nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder: he must have experienced something recently that triggered his past memories of the war. Since his past memories weren’t resolved – his brain didn’t process the memories – a current event is triggering an extreme emotional reaction.
How EMDR Therapy Works
“EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy,” writes Dr Shapiro in Getting Past Your Past.
“It started because of a discovery I made about eye movements….I noticed that when that kind of thought [negative, charged, nagging thoughts] came to mind, my eyes started moving very rapidly back and forth diagonally. Then the thought shifted from my consciousness. When I brought it back again, it had lost its power.”
Dr Shapiro started doing the eye movement desensitization or EMDR therapy deliberately: she found she was able to change the feelings connected to her thoughts by deliberately using eye movements. She also discovered that other forms of side-to-side movements (eg, taps alternating from hand to hand or tones played from one ear to the other) is also effective in helping people process memories and get unstuck from the past.
If you feel stuck in the past – or if you keep making the same mistakes over and over – you’re not alone! One of my most popular articles is How to Let Go of Someone You Love – Freedom From the Past. EMDR therapy might what you need to break free and move on.
Tips From Getting Past Your Past
If you’re struggling with your past, or if you feel like you’re stuck in the past, then you need to read Getting Past Your Past! Sometimes it helps just to know that there are unprocessed memories that are holding you back. That’s the first step. The second is processing those memories – and it may not be as traumatic as you think.
- We are all the product of an interaction between our genetic makeup and our experiences.
- Understanding where our actions come from can help us figure out what we need to do to change, and help us if we feel like we’re stuck in the past.
- There are different types of EMDR treatment techniques, such as Lightstream Technique and the Safe Place Technique. What may be most effective for you depends on your personality, history, unprocessed memory, and emotional or physical symptoms.
You don’t necessarily need to find a therapist who is experienced in eye movement desensitization. In Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life With EMDR Therapy, Dr Shapiro says that many of her techniques are effective for people to use on their own, without going into therapy.
EMDR can work whether you’re struggling with anger issues or unsure whether your introverted personality traits are helping or hindering your life.
If you have any thoughts on being stuck in the past – or getting unstuck with eye movement desensitization therapy – please share below.
To learn more about Francine Shapiro or Eye Movement Desensitization therapy, visit the EMDR Institute. Shapiro created EMDR therapy, and has received several honors, such as the International Sigmund Freud Award for Psychotherapy of the City of Vienna and the American Psychological Association Trauma Psychology Division Award for Outstanding Contributions to Practice in Trauma Psychology.