blurred image of dark cityIt’s impossible to talk about healing from past trauma without talking about EMDR therapy. It’s one of the most effective treatments out there, with a proven track record of success. At the same time, when you’re looking for that light at the end of the tunnel, it can be extra frustrating if you try it and feel like it isn’t working for you because you still can’t consciously recall the details of your trauma.

In this article, we’ll explore what to do when you can’t remember trauma during EMDR therapy. But first, let’s dig into how traumatic memories are stored, and why they’re difficult to access.

Trauma and Memory

Invariably, traumatic memories are colored by the heat and danger of the moment. Whether physical or emotional, real or imagined, our bodies are built to respond to danger through a set of defense mechanisms. When we feel threatened, our brains send a signal to produce stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol—these exist to sharpen our reaction times and our senses. You can feel these changes in your body. Our heart rate changes, blood pumps at a higher rate to our muscles instead of other parts of our body, and our muscle tension shoots through the roof, giving us a boost of strength and speed. In that state, if we’re injured, our blood actually clots faster to keep us from bleeding out.

The changes run deeper than that though. During a traumatic experience, our brains store and process sensory information differently. If you’ve ever burnt your hand on a hot stove, think of how that felt—how your body remembers it. The memory lives in your skin. This is because traumatic memories are stored differently than normal memories—while EMDR can help us remember them with greater clarity, sometimes remembering looks different than we expect.

Sense and Memory

Let go of any idea you have of what is supposed to happen during EMDR therapy when you’re processing a traumatic memory. Instead of trying to actively recall details of an event or picture them, stay focused on what you’re feeling. As you work with your therapist, pay special attention to the sensations in your body. Is there tension in your muscles or discomfort in your stomach? These sensations can be triggered by memories.

Remembering traumatic experiences can be a confusing and layered process. During EMDR therapy you should focus on your whole body and what it’s telling you. Don’t rush yourself. Let your therapist be your guide, and be patient.

Explore Other Memories

One of the most incredible aspects of EMDR therapy is how effective it can be even when you can’t consciously recall the traumatic memory with clarity. I know all my clients are different—some have an easy time picturing things, others can’t picture them at all. My job is to help you find your way in the woods. We’ll do that by focusing on the things you can remember instead of worrying about the things you can’t. There are some steps you can take either before, during, or after sessions to help you get in the right headspace for recalling it: 

  • Go back and look at old photos
  • Listen to a voicemail
  • Call up a friend to talk about the old days
  • Even talking about unrelated memories that dance around the edges of the traumatic event can help bring it into focus

Getting Support

If you’re worried EMDR therapy won’t work because you can’t remember what happened clearly, please reach out for a consultation. I can do a quick assessment to gauge whether or not EMDR is right for you.