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How Memories Keep Us Apart: The Past Is Present

When I first began to develop EMDR therapy back in 1987, I experimented with everyone who was willing to volunteer. One of the things I found very interesting was that often the problem they were concentrating on would spontaneously connect in their minds to earlier memories that were related in some way. That's how I began to discover that the past was really present.
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When I first began to develop EMDR therapy back in 1987, I experimented with everyone who was willing to volunteer. I'd ask: Do you have anything bothering you? Not surprisingly, everyone had something. Whether it was a problem at work or a fight at home, by having them concentrate on it and using the procedures, rapid change usually occurred. Fascinating connections were made, and it was like having a window into the brain. For instance, one of the things I found very interesting was that often the problem they were concentrating on would spontaneously connect in their minds to earlier memories that were related in some way. That's how I began to discover that the past was really present.

I learned many things from those early days that have stayed with me. In 1988, when I had reached the point of wanting to do a research study on the therapy procedures, I needed to find a suitable group to work with. Since I'd discovered that the easiest thing to resolve was old memories, I started to think about people who were most intensely troubled by past experiences. That brought me to people suffering from sexual assault and combat and landed me right in the middle of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which had been categorized as a diagnosis only eight years earlier. There hadn't yet been a good randomized controlled study published on any of the existing treatments, so there were no real guidelines to help those who were suffering. At that point, I had only used my procedures with people who were bothered by more mundane problems. I had to find out if they would work with highly-charged memories.

I called the local Veterans Outreach Center and luckily there was a counselor there who was himself a combat veteran and volunteered to work with me. He had been bothered for the last 20 years by something he had heard while unloading dead bodies from a helicopter. With EMDR, after preparation for the processing that includes safeguards to ensure that the client stays in control, the therapist uses a specific set of procedures that include eye movements or other forms of stimulation. These procedures allow the brain to do its work. With the therapist's guidance, connections are made spontaneously and the images, thoughts and physical sensations change. The counselor reported that he'd started by seeing and hearing what had been said that was so upsetting for him, but after the first set of procedures he just saw the scene with no sound. After the next set he said the disturbing image began to look like "a paint chip under water." After a few more sets he said that it no longer bothered him and he felt, "The war is over. I can tell everyone to go home now."

Because of the results with the counselor, the head of the Outreach Center was willing to ask the veterans with PTSD if any were interested in volunteering for treatment. It was during that time that I learned about the nobility of their suffering. Working with them let me see how often the pain came not from their own danger, but from their feelings about who they couldn't save. It also broke my heart to see how many were still diving for cover 20 years after returning from Vietnam. Even though they were physically back home, their minds were still haunted by the war memories stored in their brain. They couldn't connect to the present, because they were still haunted by the past.

During my work there, I began to see how memories could also separate us from others in our lives. The way the memories are stored in an "unprocessed" form holds the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that were there at the time of the original event. When something in the present happens, it can "trigger" the memory and the person's perspective and reactions are pushed by the past event, rather than what is appropriate and adaptive in the here and now.
A prime example was one of the veterans I worked with who came in one day complaining that he felt he couldn't control his anger at an incompetent co-worker. Now, none of us likes to work with someone who is incompetent, but "Jon's" response was off the chart. He was afraid he was going to "lose it" at work.

After asking him to concentrate on the image of the co-worker, along with the connected thoughts and feelings, we started the reprocessing procedures and different associations came up. We soon discovered what was pushing the anger when he spontaneously said, "The thing that came to mind is that in this case the stakes aren't high. It's just a bunch of computers. Even if he screws everything up, we can turn it around. Obviously, the issue is people aren't dying. 'Cause that you can't reverse." Jon's brain had taken us to the mother lode: During the war, if someone was incompetent, people could die. That's what was pushing the anger. But now, with the EMDR work, there was a shift on an emotional level, and he was able to laugh at the situation. He later told me that the anger at the co-worker never came up again. Once his brain made the appropriate connections through the reprocessing, the past was no longer present.

One of the things important for us all to recognize is that symptoms like Jon's aren't confined to those people who have had a major trauma. In fact, recent research has shown that people can have more symptoms of PTSD from certain kinds of ordinary "life experiences" than from major traumas. I'll describe that in more detail in future posts. But the bottom line is, when you find yourself reacting "irrationally" in any kind of relationship or situation, it would be good to think about the possibility that "unprocessed memories" are running the show.

It would also be useful to think about how "unprocessed memories" can be affecting us all on a global scale. Often, attempts at resolution or reconciliation are prevented because the very sight of those on the other side of the divide, or the mere mention of the conflict by those attempting to mediate disputes, can trigger the unhealed memories that are stored in the brain. These memories contain the negative emotions, thoughts and physical sensations encoded at the time of the event -- ranging from humiliations to assaults. The involuntary reactions caused by these memories hamper the ability to be rational, pragmatic and open to new ways of thinking. So, whether we are talking about family conflicts or global conflicts, these unhealed memories continue to divide us. And it's a big part of why we can't get along. But the good news is, with enough effort we can turn things around!

For more information on the EMDR Institute, visit

For more about the EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs, visit

For more by Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., click here.

For more on PTSD, click here.