Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of your life with self-help techniques from EMDR

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life With Self-Help Techniques From EMDT Therapy 

Francine Shapiro Phd 


Why would a beautiful, intelligent woman keep picking the wrong men, and then when they try to break up with her, throw herself on the floor clutching their legs, begging them not to leave? 

Ben is a successful businessman. Why is he hit with anxiety whenever he has to make a presentation? 

Stacey has been trying one therapist after another for years to discover why she has an almost constant feeling of dread, fears of abandonment and an eating disorder. Strangest of all, she has repeated images of the color red and a candle. It makes no sense to her, but it has been going on for as long as she can remember. 

Interestingly, there is a simple explanation for their problems that involves how the brain itself functions. In this book, we will explore both the reasons for suffering and what we can do about it.


The truth is we all suffer at one time or another. Situations arise all the time that affect us negatively. But when we continue to have pain long after the experience itself has passed, it is because the hard-wiring of our brains influences our minds.

Let’s try the following experiment so you can see for yourself. I’ll give a single sentence and you just notice the first thing that pops into your mind: 

Roses are red

The odds are that the first thing to come up was: Violets are blue. For people born in the United States, it’s basically the equivalent of a knee-jerk response. 

This is an important concept, since mental responses are based on physical reactions. Your brain is programmed to respond in the same way as the rest of your body. Regardless of age or gender, when your knee is hit in a certain way your leg will jerk. 

Similarly, regardless of intention, your mind also reacts automatically. For instance, when is the last time you heard that rhyme? You probably learned it in childhood. 

So, if you don’t live with young children, it was likely many, many years ago. But it came up automatically nonetheless. 

These types of automatic responses can be wonderful and useful, and show the power of our minds, but they don’t always serve us. Take a look at the sentences themselves. 

Your response to “Roses are red” wasn’t a critical evaluation of its meaning. Your mind just moved along with a response as if it was true. But roses aren’t always red. They are also yellow, pink, purple and most any color you can think of. However, that unexamined sentence looks just fine at first glance. 

And how about the second one: Violets are blue. Are they really? No, actually they are purple. But the line will come up whether it’s true or not. Now, probably the sentence didn’t cause you any kind of distress. But that same type of automatic response also causes a wide range of problems that disrupt happiness, families and communities. 

The same mind/ brain processes that allow us to recognize a rhyme, or sing along with a tune we haven’t heard in 20 years, are the ones that can also drown us in the misery of anxiety, depression, heartache and at times physical pain.

Every experience we’ve had in our lives has become a building block in our inner world, governing our reactions to everything and every person we encounter. When we “learn” something, the experience is physically stored within networks of brain cells called “neurons.” 

These networks actually form our unconscious mind, determining how our brain interprets the world around us and governing how we feel from moment to moment. These memories include experiences that took place years ago, and our conscious mind is often unaware that they have any impact on us at all. 

But since the memories are physically stored in the brain, they can pop up outside our control in response to “Roses are red,” just as they color our view of every new situation we encounter. They can cause us to feel unattractive when we’re not. Depressed when everyone else around us is happy. And they can leave us feeling heartsick if someone leaves us—even if we know consciously that the person is terrible for us and continuing the relationship would be a big mistake. 

Basically, many of the feelings and actions that undermine our happiness are symptoms that stem from this memory system that forms the unconscious.

When negative reactions and behaviors in the present can be tracked directly back to an earlier memory, we define those memories as “unprocessed”—meaning that they are stored in the brain in a way that still holds the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that were experienced earlier in life.

In the course of this book we will be exploring how to identify the memories that underlie personal and relationship problems; what we can do to help manage them on our own.

We’ll also explore the workings of the mind—the intricate connections that form our consciousness—through stories contributed by some of the more than 70,000 clinicians worldwide who practice a form of therapy known as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).

EMDR therapy targets the unprocessed memories that contain the negative emotions, sensations sensations and beliefs. By activating the brain’s information processing system the old memories can then be “digested.” Meaning what is useful is learned, what’s useless is discarded, and the memory is now stored in a way that is no longer damaging.

Once the memory of the childhood sensations disappeared and were replaced by the feeling of safety, and the belief that as an adult we can take care of ourselves. Of course there would be more memories that might have to be dealt with if parents have been generally abusive or neglectful. But regardless of the number of memories involved, basically we are entering into the person’s “unconscious” mind with this form of therapy, in a way that can allow insights, connections and change to occur rapidly within the reprocessing sessions.


When most people think of the unconscious, they think of psychoanalysis and movies that involve a Freudian view of psychic conflicts, and symbolic dreams and gestures. From the psychoanalytic perspective it generally takes years of talk therapy and “working through” to gain insight and mastery over forces that are hidden from view. This form of therapy can have great value. But Freud published first in 1900, and many things have changed since then.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Reactions that seem irrational are often exactly that. But irrational doesn’t mean that there is no reason for them. It means that the responses come from a part of our brain that is not governed by the rational mind. 

The automatic reactions that control our emotions come from neural associations within our memory networks that are independent of our higher reasoning power. That’s why you can watch in amazement as you do something you know you’ll regret later, or get drawn to the wrong people, or feel hurt by someone you have no respect for, or yell at a loved one with little reason, or feel powerless to shake a depression brought on by something that seems inconsequential. 

It’s irrational but understandable and, more important, it’s fixable. While genetics play an important role, in general, the basis of the suffering is the way our memories of past experiences are stored in the brain, and this can be changed. Happily, appropriately stored memories are also the basis of joy and mental health. Later on, we’ll explore more about how the brain and memories work.


We are all on a continuum of suffering and happiness, of sickness and health, of families who contributed to our problems and those who were supportive and loving. Likewise, the kinds of experiences we have encountered range from the usual ones of childhood humiliations, failures, rejection and arguments to the major events needed to diagnose posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as major accidents, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, combat, or natural disasters. 

In addition, for someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, they have to have symptoms such as intrusive thoughts, sleep disturbances such as nightmares or recurrent dreams, anxiety, “hyperarousal” where they are extremely alert for danger and may jump at loud noises, or “numbing” where they feel shut down and disconnected. They also try to stay away from reminders of the event, but thoughts of it keep popping up anyway.


Likewise, if someone who was raped a year ago or molested 50 years ago has PTSD, the past is present. When they think of the incident, it can feel as though it’s happening all over again, or they can be fearful and anxious when around certain people or places. 

But regardless of how long ago something happened, and regardless of how long symptoms have been there, it doesn’t need to be permanent. The research is clear on that. Also important, although a major trauma such as robbery or violence is needed to give a formal diagnosis of PTSD, a number of recent studies have demonstrated that everyday life experiences, such as relationship problems or unemployment, can produce just as many, and sometimes even more, symptoms of PTSD.


This has important implications for all of us. It shows that there is no clear separation between kinds of events, nor is there a clear separation between symptoms. Similar to those who suffer from PTSD, we all have had the experience of feeling anxious, fearful, jumpy or shut off from others, thoughts we can’t get out of our heads, guilt, or disturbing dreams. 

Sometimes those reactions are based on a current situation and we need to think about it and get the information needed to handle it. For others, the symptoms go away when the situation changes. But for many of us, these feelings occur often or for no apparent reason. These are generally signs that there are underlying unprocessed memories memories causing them. 

These memories can be identified and treated. So it’s useful to remember that whatever the persistent negative emotion, belief or behavior that has been bothering you, it’s not the cause of suffering—it’s the symptom. The likely cause is the memory that’s pushing it. Our memories are the basis of both negative symptoms and of mental health. The key difference is the way the memories are stored in the brain. If they are unprocessed, they can cause us to overreact or act in a way that hurts us or those around us. If they are “processed,” we are able to react in ways that serve our loved ones and ourselves well.


Those of us who were raised by parents who were unsupportive or abusive have an idea of the kinds of experiences that might be causing some of our problems. Others have read stories of really disturbed families and messed-up childhoods, and believe “That’s not me. I had a good family so it makes no sense for me to feel the way I do.” 


However, sometimes even with the most supportive family members who believe they are doing the best for us, we can find ourselves locked in a web of symptoms and pain that we don’t understand. And sometimes the search for answers in therapy can lead us astray, because the clinician does not have a clear idea about how memory works.

So if there is a symptom, the message is that there is usually some experience that caused or is contributing to it. Something happened, happened, whether we consciously remember it or not. 

Although we have come to rely heavily on pills for feelings of well-being, many times they only mask the symptoms. The cause of these problems is not typically an innate neurological difficulty or purely biochemical. Of course our genetic makeup plays an important role and can cause us to react strongly to certain experiences. 

Sometimes we can inherit predispositions to a variety of vulnerable states, such as depression or anxiety. However, even in these cases, certain types of life experiences are generally needed to cause distress. Basically, our genetic makeup combines with our experiences in ways that can make life go on “automatic pilot.”


The other message is that just because the symptoms are long lasting or severe, it doesn’t necessarily mean there was a major trauma. Even seemingly minor events from an adult perspective can be the cause. 

The bottom line is that from the vantage point of a child, it felt traumatic at the time and the memory was locked into the brain. These experiences may have happened long ago, and we may not recognize how much they actually affected us. But the negative emotions, behaviors, beliefs and sensations that cause chronic problems generally can be tracked back to these unprocessed memories. In that way the past stays present. 

This book will provide techniques that can help you make sense of symptoms and identify their cause. We’ll also demonstrate ways in which your thoughts, feelings and reactions can be transformed, lowering distress and increasing confidence and comfort.


This book is about understanding the “Why” in your life, and in those around you. More important, it’s also about understanding what you can do about it. We all have moments of pain and uncertainty. It’s not a question of “Will I suffer sometime in my life?” Rather, it’s how long and in how many ways. 

Some of us move rapidly through certain kinds of pain, but not through others. Some of us are joyful, while others feel joy rarely or not at all. This book is about understanding why we are who we are, and learning what we can do about pain and negative reactions that don’t serve us. It’s also about identifying and opening the blocks to feelings of happiness and well-being. By using a number of the techniques, you can decide for yourself how to make the best choices for your future. 

As a child in a world of adults, everyone had experiences of not being in control, being ignored or feeling less important than other people. We’ll explore in later chapters why psychological symptoms and problems develop for some and not for others. But it is important to remember that all of these things occurred before we had any choices or power. As children, we didn’t ask for what happened to us. And whatever kind of parenting we had, our parents also are who they are because of their own life experiences, including the way they were raised. Basically, if we want to assign blame, we generally have to go back through generations. Nevertheless, even the longest negative patterns can be broken. As responsible adults with sufficient knowledge, we have the power to take control of ourselves.


Since memories form the basis of our personality characteristics and how we respond in the world, we’ll explore ways to identify the memories that may be at the root of both emotional and physical pain. In this book will also explore problems involving self-esteem, depression, anxiety, addictions, relationships and parenting issues, job problems, loss and even physical conditions. You’ll also learn specific techniques you can use to help deal with each of these issues, and guidelines for knowing when further assistance is needed. It’s important to remember that while unprocessed memories are often the source of symptoms and pain, processed memories are the basis of mental health.



Awareness of anything in the outside world comes through our senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste) into working memory. This automatically links into a wide range of memory networks networks in the brain to help us understand what we are perceiving. 

This process is going on for all of us all the time. Even the words on this page have to link up to your memory networks so that you can understand what you’re reading. Everybody you see, everyone you interact with, all of the experiences that you have in the present and your perceptions of those present experiences link up to your memory networks in order for you to make sense of them. 

Those memory networks have all of your other already stored experiences within them. They become the basis of how you’re feeling, thinking and behaving in the moment. So, how you respond to the people in your life, and how they respond to you, is based just as much on past experiences as it is on whatever either of you does or says in the present.




If we cut ourselves, unless there is an obstacle, we tend to heal. If we remove the block, the body goes back to healing. That’s why we’re willing to let ourselves be cut open during surgery. We expect incisions to heal. 

The brain is part of the body. In addition to the millions of memory networks I’ve just described, we all have hardwired into our brains a mechanism—an information processing system—for healing. It is geared to take any sort of emotional turmoil to a level of mental health or what I call a level of adaptive resolution. This means a resolution that includes the useful information that allows us to be more fit for survival in our lives. The information processing system is meant to make connections to what is useful, and let go of the rest.

Here’s how it works: Imagine that you’ve had an argument with a coworker. You can feel upset, angry or fearful with all the physical reactions that go along with these different emotions. You can also have negative thoughts about the person and yourself. You might imagine how you’d like to exact revenge, but let’s hope you resist those behaviors; among other things they would probably get you fired. So you walk away. You think about it. You talk about it. You go to sleep and maybe dream about it. And the next day you might not feel so bad. You’ve basically “digested” the experience and now have a better sense of what to do. That’s the brain’s information processing system taking a disturbing experience and allowing learning to take place. Much of it goes on during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Scientists believe that during this stage of sleep the brain processes wishes, survival information and the learning that took place that day. Basically, whatever is important to us. The bottom line is that the brain is hardwired to do that. 

(Insert the sleeping book) 

After uninterrupted information processing, the memory of the argument has generally linked up with more useful information already stored in your brain. This can include past experiences you’ve had with this coworker and others. You may now be able to say, “Oh, that’s just the way John is. I’ve handled something like this before with him, and it came out fine.” As these other memories link up with the current disturbing incident, your experience of the event changes. You learn what is useful from the argument and your brain lets go of what’s not. Because the negative feelings and the self-talk are no longer useful, they’re gone. But what you needed to learn remains, and now your brain stores the memory of the event in a form where it is able to successfully guide you in the future. As a result, you have a better sense of what you’re supposed to do. You can talk to your coworker without the intense emotional turmoil you had the day before. That’s the brain’s adaptive information processing system taking a disturbing experience and allowing learning to take place. It’s doing just what it’s geared to do. 

Sadly, disturbing experiences, whether major traumas or other kinds of upsetting events, can overwhelm the system. When that happens, the intense emotional and physical disturbance caused by the situation prevents the information information processing system from making the internal connections needed to take it to a resolution. Instead, the memory of the situation becomes stored in the brain as you experienced it. What you saw and felt, the image, the emotions, the physical sensations and the thoughts become encoded in memory in their original, unprocessed form. 

So, whenever you see the coworker you argued with, rather than being able to have a calm chat, the anger or fear comes flooding back. You may try to manage your feelings out of self-preservation, but whenever the person appears, your distress goes up. When reactions such as these refuse to go away in the present, it’s often because they are also linking into unprocessed memories from the past. 


These unconscious connections occur automatically. For instance, your immediate dislike of a person you just met may come from memories of someone in some way similar who hurt you before. Also, consider the case of a woman who was raped. Years later, she is in bed with someone she knows is a very loving partner. But when he touches her in a certain way, her emotions and body respond automatically. The terror and feelings of powerlessness she had during the rape flood her. If the information processing system did not function properly after the attack, a touch similar to the rapist’s can link into the memory network and “trigger” the emotions and the physical sensations that are part of that stored unprocessed memory. The disrupted information processing system has stored the memory in isolation—unintegrated within the more general memory networks. It can’t change since it is unable to link up with anything more useful and adaptive. 


That’s why time doesn’t heal all wounds, and you may still feel anger, resentment, pain, sorrow or a number of other emotions about events that took place years ago. They are frozen in time, and the unprocessed memories can become the foundation for emotional, and sometimes physical, problems. Even though you might not have had a major trauma in your life, research has shown that other kinds of life experiences can cause the same types of problems. And since the memory connections happen automatically, below conscious level, you may have no idea what’s really running your show.


The field of psychoneuroimmunology—studying the effects of stress on our immune systems—had just begun to open up based on the work of Norman Cousins and others. So I decided to search for whatever practical information might be available and get it out to the general public.

Over the following years, I investigated dozens of workshops, studied with numerous teachers, and entered a formal psychology doctoral program. So, when my thoughts changed unexpectedly, it caught my attention. I believed I’d stumbled onto the brain’s natural healing process. This worked right into what I’d been exploring for the past ten years—how the mind and body were connected. Since eye movements happened spontaneously during that period of dream sleep, and we often awaken feeling better about situations in our lives, maybe they have the same effect when we are awake. 

After I found that I could change the feelings connected to my thoughts by deliberately using the eye movements, I wondered if it would work for other people. So I tried it with everyone I knew who was willing. I asked them to think of something that bothered them. Not surprisingly, they all had some situation they could focus on—a fight with a family member, a problem at work, a wrong decision they’d made. 

I would begin by asking them to concentrate on the memory. I then had them follow my hand with their eyes for about 30 seconds to re-create the same kinds of eye movements I’d experienced. I called that a “set” of eye movements—and I asked them how they felt afterward. Most people would start to feel better—but then their feelings would stop changing. If that happened, I’d ask them to focus on a different part of the memory or what had been said. Or I’d change the direction or speed of the eye movement. 

Since I was getting feedback after each set, I worked through trial and error with about 70 people until the results were consistent. Since the changes were happening rapidly, if someone stalled after one set I could easily explore different alternatives to start up the positive effects again. 

At the end of my doctoral program, I decided to do a controlled study on my procedure for my dissertation. It seemed that the most relevant thing to deal with was old memories. I asked myself who would have the most problem with those issues. The answer seemed clearly to be sexual abuse victims and combat veterans. That brought me to working with people who had the diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Why should eye movements have any effect? 

How can any therapy show results within just one session? 

One of the “fathers” of behavior therapy announced my findings as a “breakthrough” at a major conference, and others questioned how something that seemed so simple could produce such dramatic benefits. 

I also discovered that other forms of side-to-side movement besides the eyes could be effective. Therapists could also use taps alternating from hand to hand or tones played from one ear to the other. Some scientists believe that all these strategies cause a constant refocusing of attention (back and forth) called an “orienting response” that links into the same brain functions that occur during REM sleep. 

Others believe that focusing attention on the trauma and the outside stimulation (eye movements, taps or tones) at the same time also disrupts “working memory.” At this point, there is enough research for me to believe that both are true. So, if I had to do it over again, I’d simply call it “Reprocessing Therapy.”

Why Does EMDR Work?

Clinicians guide their clients by accessing past experiences that set the groundwork for current problems. Then together they process present situations that cause the disturbances, and incorporate new education, skills and perspectives into the memory networks that are necessary for future successes. The person receiving EMDR therapy not only addresses the obvious symptoms of a problem, but can also end up with a wide range of positive changes that affect all areas of life.

Changing the memories that form the way we see ourselves also changes the way we view others. Therefore, our relationships, job performance, what we are willing to do or are able to resist, all move in a positive direction.

One of the first PTSD patients evaluated in a study was the son of a mother with bipolar disorder. He had had a variety of traumatic experiences in childhood and had a very shrunken hippocampus. After eight EMDR sessions, his hippocampus increased in size by about 11%. These types of results tell us that we need more research to find out not only how EMDR treatment works but also how an adult brain is able to change and grow. This “neuro-plasticity” is an event that scientists had long believed was impossible. Now that we know the adult brain can change, it opens up new possibilities for many conditions that were considered untreatable.

(Insert the brain that Changes itself)  

Research shows that if a person is taught a skill but is prevented from entering REM sleep that evening, the skill can be lost. During REM sleep, the brain allows the appropriate neural connections to make needed associations. The memory is processed and shifted to a more adaptive, usable form. That’s why you can go to bed worried about something but wake up feeling better or with a solution. In a waking state you’d be aware of the insights that are occurring. However, those same beneficial processes are taking place while you are sleeping.

Unfortunately, as you know, some distressing memories persist. That’s because the level of disturbance from some incidents is so high that the brain’s information processing system becomes disrupted and can’t take the memory to resolution on its own.


In EMDR therapy all the work is done within the treatment sessions. The client is not asked to describe the memory in detail or do homework. Instead, the clinician accesses the disturbing memory, jump-starts the brain’s information processing system, guides the procedures and monitors the effects. As a result of EMDR processing, internal connections can be made rapidly during the session as indicated by positive changes in emotions, insights, new memories and a greater understanding of life issues. The dominant theory is that the original memory is accessed, connections changed and then stored with these new modifications in a neurobiological process called “reconsolidation.”

Research with trauma victims has found that EMDR is able to eliminate symptoms without the homework needed in other therapies. Also, since there is no need to speak in detail about the past disturbing memories, people who are ashamed of what happened to them, or what they did, do not have to talk about it. 


For all of us, unprocessed memories are generally the basis of negative responses, attitudes and behaviors. Processed memories, on the other hand, are the basis of adaptive positive responses, attitudes and behaviors. When clinicians say “personality,” we mean our usual ways of responding to people and events. 

In addition to genetic factors, each characteristic or personality trait is based on a group of memory networks that cause us to behave or feel in a certain way. These memory networks are created throughout our lives and reflect who we were, where we were, what was happening, when the network was created. That’s why we can seem to be very different at work than we are at home. We can have different typical responses because we may have had a very chaotic home life when we were children, but we were very successful in school.


As you can see, while we are all the product of genetics, past experiences heavily influence most of our characteristics and our responses to the world. There is no doubt that how we grew up influences us. The experiences we encountered became encoded in our memory networks and are the basis of how we perceive the world as adults. And even the most supportive families can still leave children with unprocessed memories. 

The same seems to apply in humans. Studying premature infants in neonatology wards, they noted that the premature kids, while pampered and fretted over and maintained in near-sterile conditions, were hardly ever touched. So a crew went in and started touching them: fifteen-minute periods, three times a day, stroking their bodies, moving their limbs.

It worked wonders. The kids grew nearly 50 percent faster, were more active and alert, matured faster behaviorally, and were released from the hospital nearly a week earlier than the premature infants who weren’t touched. Months later, they were still doing better than infants who hadn’t been touched.

These kinds of problems can occur because childhood is a time when we’re vulnerable. We’re small in a land of giants. We don’t have any power. So even in the best of childhoods, we may have experiences that are stored unprocessed with the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that we had at the time. These experiences stay “hot” regardless of how much time has elapsed. In EMDR therapy the memories are identified and processed because they are often the foundation of current symptoms.

As we walk around the world now, a variety of things are happening in the present that may be linking into unprocessed memory networks. When that happens, instead of being able to deal with people and events as an adult, our childhood emotions and sensations arise and unconsciously influence our reactions. We don’t get an image of the old event that says, “Oh, I’m acting this way because Mom forgot to pick me up at daycare.” We just have the feelings connected with it. Once we identify and process these unconscious memories, the negative emotions and physical sensations no longer arise. Then we can be fully adult in the present and act appropriately.

I should also emphasize that not everything is based on early childhood. Many types of horrific experiences we can have as adults may cause symptoms of PTSD or other disorders. Sometimes it’s an accumulation of those experiences that tips us over.

The question is: Are we being guided appropriately by our memories, or are they pushing us to do things we shouldn’t do—and preventing us from doing things we should? Eat it or not? Take drugs—or a deep breath? Stand up for myself or shrink away? Enjoy a success or worry about something happening to spoil it? Choose a relationship that’s good for me or trouble? Be defined by “irrational” responses from unprocessed memories or mental health?


Although there are thousands of different ways to suffer, over the past 20 years it has become increasingly clear that what brings people into therapy generally involves one major theme: “I feel stuck.” Very often they say, “I don’t know why I keep doing these things.” Or “Why can’t I feel better about myself?” “I know I should think differently, but I don’t.” Or “I should be able to take action, but I can’t.” 

In other words, people are pushed into responding to the world in ways that are painful—prevented from doing or having the things they want. And then there are those who have tried to get help and say, “Therapy didn’t work for me.” What they don’t recognize is that there are more than a hundred different kinds of therapy, so finding the right therapy and the right clinician can be the luck of the draw.


We’ve already discussed how unprocessed memories can affect people, since the disturbing physical sensations and emotions that are stored in the brain arise automatically. What has been striking for me is that the same principles of brain, mind and body apply regardless of age, gender or location.The body is a very important aspect of so let’s try the first experiment.

First, take a deep breath and release it slowly. Then close your eyes for a moment and notice how your body feels.

Now take another deep breath and notice how your body feels if you close your eyes again and repeat some words. Open your eyes after repeating the word “No”—preferably out loud, or in your mind if you’re not alone—for about ten seconds: No. No. No. No. No. No. No.

Just notice. For instance, did your shoulders, chest or stomach change in some way?

Now take another deep breath, close your eyes again and notice what happens when you change the word to: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Did you notice a difference?

So, the question to ask yourself, if you did not experience any difference between “No” and “Yes” in the exercise we did, is: 

Was the exercise not a good fit for me, or is this an example of generally not being in touch with my body and emotions? 

If it’s the latter, there may be unprocessed memories involved. Because whether or not you’re in touch with your body sensations or emotions, the unconscious connections of your memory system are still affecting your reactions in the present. 

Basically, the computer is still running, even if the monitor is off.


Since we all walk around automatically responding to the world around us, it’s important to begin noticing whether a disturbing reaction is appropriate. If not, is it excessive, is it there only in regard to a specific situation, or is it more far-reaching? 

Whatever the inappropriate habitual negative emotions, beliefs and physical responses might be, they are generally caused by earlier unprocessed memories that are pushing them. The past is present. What we need to become aware of is whether the responses are appropriate. If not, do they occur in only one area of our lives, or are those unprocessed memories casting a wider net? Once again—is it the climate or the weather? 


Since we all have unprocessed memories that get triggered, we have all felt anxious, fearful, sad, angry or insecure at different times without really knowing why. Before we begin to explore some of those personal issues, it’s important to have a way to get rid of disturbance if it arises. It gives us the balance we need to keep one foot in the present as we explore our past. Although we’ve all felt those negative feelings before, we can investigate most easily if we are not afraid of the emotions. The best way to accomplish that is to know we can get rid of them when we choose. Therefore, we’ll learn some self-control techniques that we also use as part of the preparation phase during EMDR therapy.

A Safe or Calm Place

In adaptive information processing terms, what we’re doing is increasing your access to positive memory networks. These are the networks that have within them the pleasurable experiences you have had in your life. For instance, the kinds of experiences where you felt calm and relaxed. That way, if you feel disturbed at any time and want to stop, there is immediate access to positive emotions.

So to begin, we’ll learn a “Safe Place” technique. It involves guided imagery commonly used in hypnosis and meditation techniques. We start with a positive image. What we’re looking for is an image of a positive experience that you’ve had in the past. Maybe going to the beach makes you feel really good, or maybe the forest or a mountaintop holds nice memories for you. It should be a positive experience that is not connected to anything negative. Identify a place that gives you a feeling of safety. Or if you prefer, it can be a feeling of calm. If you feel comfortable that you have a good memory connection that can bring up the feelings of safety or calm, we can do the exercise. 

Bring up an image of that scene, and notice the colors and any other sense experiences that may go with it. Notice the feel of it, and notice the sensations that come up in your body—your chest, stomach, shoulders or face.

Now identify a single word that would go with this feeling—such as “peaceful,” which may describe the feeling, or “forest,” which would describe the scene. That’s a label for the experience. 

Now close your eyes and do it. If those positive feelings came up, then do it again for another moment or so by closing your eyes, bringing up the image, and then bring back the word to pair with it. Continue to do this for five times, spending about one minute each time. This should help strengthen the connections. 

Try it now.

Breathing Shift Technique 

Now let’s try the exercise again, but this time notice the change in your breathing when you bring up the image and word. After you feel the positive emotions emerge, place your hand over the part of your stomach or chest where your breath begins.

Notice your body, and then bring up the image and word. Does the positive feeling come up with them? Close your eyes to test it out, and then open them when you have the answer. 

Try it now. 

Try bringing up something recent that mildly disturbed you, and notice how your body changes. Then bring up the positive image and the word, and see if the good feeling comes back. 

Try it now.

In order to make sure it keeps working, you should do the exercise on a daily basis when you are not upset. This will make it easier for it to help you shift from a state of disturbance to a state of safety or calm.

Adding Bilateral Stimulation

Once you have that safe or calm place, there is a way that can help to increase the positive feelings: by using bilateral stimulation with alternate tapping.

1-Put your hands on your thighs and tapping first one and then the other. When we concentrate on the safe or calm place we only tap slowly back and forth four to six times. That’s about five seconds.

2-Another way to do the stimulation is called the Butterfly Hug. To do it, you cross your arms in front of you with your right hand on your left shoulder and your left hand on your right. Then you tap your hands alternately on each shoulder slowly four to six times.

To try it, bring up the image of the safe or calm place along with that positive word that you’ve connected with it and allow yourself to go into that state of safety or calm. And when you have that sense, tap alternately on your thighs or with the Butterfly Hug four to six times, then stop and take a breath and see how it feels. Try it for one set. Then open your eyes.

Use the Safe/ Calm Place exercise every day when you are feeling good to make sure the positive emotions are reloaded and strong enough to help you get rid of disturbance when needed.

Cartoon Character Technique 

Here is another useful tool that can help with negative self-talk. Think of a cartoon character that has a funny voice, such as Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd or Popeye the Sailor. 

Close your eyes and bring up that critical voice and notice how your body changes. Then make the voice in your head sound like the cartoon character and notice what happens. Try it now. For most people, the disturbing feelings that go along with the voice disappear. 

These cartoons have such pleasant and funny memory associations that the negative can’t last. Using these types of techniques shows that we can control many of our responses if we can just notice how distressing they are—and take the time to do something about them.


I routinely ask the audience: “How many of you remember having been humiliated sometime in grade school?” Regardless of location or who is in the audience, easily 95% raise their hands. 

So, let’s try an experiment to see if you have a similar kind of memory—and check on whether that experience is processed or not. If it’s not processed, some disturbance may arise. If it does, you will generally be able to use one of the techniques we’ve learned to get rid of it.

If you’re comfortable trying the experiment, then close your eyes, notice how your body feels—then bring up that humiliation from grade school and observe what happens. Notice how your body feels and any thoughts that come up. 

Just notice it. 

Then imagine washing away the image with a high-pressure water hose or a large wet eraser, and open your eyes. This is another technique you can use to change negative mental images. Try it now. 

If you feel any disturbance from the experience, then use your Breathing Shift technique or the Safe/ Calm Place exercise to let it go.

Now when you went into that experience, some of you found that your body kind of cringed—you felt the heat of the emotion that was there at the time, and maybe the thought that was there as well. 

Now some of you went back to that earlier experience and the thought that came up was something like “Wow, she shouldn’t have been teaching!” Or a chuckle with, “I was really something!” In other words, an adult expression came up with it, and your body didn’t particularly change while thinking about it. We would say that experience has been fully processed and no longer contains the negative emotions, physical responses and beliefs that you had at the time.

Now why some yes and some no? 

There are different sensitivities to stressful situations that may overwhelm the processing system. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s a no-blame situation. Just because the event doesn’t meet the criteria of “horrendous” to an adult doesn’t matter. That’s because even though it may look small from an adult perspective, as a child it was not small. As a child it was terrible. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s something an adult would see as a trauma. If it has a negative impact in childhood, it can be the cause of present problems. 

(Insert Braving the Wilderness summary)


The bottom line is that nobody is immune from the possibility of unconscious unprocessed memories. You may look around and feel that others are doing much better than you. But that may just be on the surface. Sometimes a person can be extremely successful in the world because of positive, adaptive experiences, despite a terrible self-image caused by unprocessed events.

While antidepressants can certainly be useful in particular conditions, they may not be the best choice in other circumstances. In addition to side effects, there are studies showing that once the medication is stopped, the symptoms can return. For instance, a study published in Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found EMDR superior to Prozac for trauma symptoms and depression. 

After eight weeks, both treatments were discontinued and people in the group that had taken antidepressants began relapsing, while people in the EMDR group continued to get better. While antidepressants helped change the “brain state,” it reverted back once the medication was stopped. EMDR therapy eliminated the cause of the depression. What we ultimately want is a change in the “climate,” not just the “weather.”


As you can probably see by now, the cases in this book demonstrate how unconscious memories govern our reactions to the world around us. 

Every association we make is based upon our memory networks—whether good or bad. The first step for any of us is to recognize what negative responses we have in the present. Then we can use some of the self-control techniques we’ve already learned, or others that are in future chapters, in order to deal with our responses. 

That means we need to monitor ourselves so we know when we are off balance. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy because we are generally on automatic pilot. By that, I mean we walk through the world often just reacting to internal feelings, thoughts or sensations and to external situations. We may plan to do something, but our inner life takes over and we become distracted.

A goal of this book is to recognize the unprocessed memories that may be running us so that we can be more aware of what is getting triggered and when. By using the self-control techniques, you can see how much you can accomplish on your own, and when you might need more help.



Most people seek therapy because there is a mystery to be solved. People look for help because of something in the present. Basically, they are doing, feeling or thinking something they know is destructive, but they can’t stop. Most people believe that even though they may have had an unfortunate childhood, it was years ago and it should be irrelevant. It’s the “shoulds” that make it even worse, because “I should be doing, feeling or thinking differently” leaves people feeling even more like failures and increases whatever negative view they have of themselves.


One of the problems is that most people view the past as merely a “learning experience.” They think, “Something happened, so I learned to feel or act in a certain way. But that was years ago. I’m older and more mature and I know it’s not the right thing to be doing—so why won’t it go away? There must be something wrong with me.”

The thing to keep in mind is that there may be something wrong, but it doesn’t have to define us. It means that there are certain unprocessed memories that are physiologically stored in our brains that contain the emotions and physical sensations that were there at the time of the event. Because these memories are unprocessed, they continue to generate negative thoughts and feelings whenever they’re triggered. 

When we do EMDR therapy, the evaluation begins as soon as the person walks through the door. Basically, the therapist thinks of the problem as if it’s a box with the lid screwed down, locking in the client. So, what do you do with it? You can hammer at the board or you can try to pry it open. But it’s more useful to look for the screws that need to be turned in order to lift the lid. And that’s what we’re going to start looking for in this chapter. What are some of the specific memories at the base of your problems?


Before we begin, I want to make it clear that we are all unique individuals, and not everything stems from childhood memories. While research shows that earlier events can cause us to become vulnerable to later problems, sometimes a recent situation can send us spinning because it’s so horrendous.

As generally happens, the changes after processing were automatic, without clients even being aware of them initially. Panic reactions are triggered because of the inappropriately stored unprocessed information. During processing, the memories go from “stuck” to a learning experience, and are now appropriately stored in the brain as the basis of new healthy reactions.

(Insert Trauma and memory by Peter Levine)

FINDING THE TOUCHSTONE MEMORIES As we’ve previously discussed, most symptoms, negative characteristics, chronic disturbing emotions and beliefs are caused by the unprocessed memories that are currently stored in the brain. 

In order to make sense of a current experience, the perceptions (what is seen, heard, felt) have to link into our existing memory networks. When an unprocessed memory is triggered by similarities in the current situation, since the memory contains the distressing emotions, beliefs and sensations of an earlier time, we experience the world in a distorted way. Even though we may be 30, 40, 50, 60 years old or more, it’s as if we are holding the hand of our young self, and it’s telling us what to do.

We’ll use a 0-10 scale of emotional disturbance that’s widely applied in clinical practice and research. It’s called a Subjective Units of Distress, or SUD, scale. From now on, if I ask you to jot down the SUD level, that’s what it means—how bad it feels, from 0 (no distress) to 10 (extreme distress).

Take a moment now and bring up something that bothers you at a 4-5 (out of 10) SUD and then use your Breathing Shift technique or bring back your Safe/ Calm Place. If the negative feelings go away, you can continue with the exercises in this chapter, because that indicates you will be able to use the techniques in order to deal with any disturbance that arises.

There are generally about 10 to 20 unprocessed unprocessed memories that are responsible for most of the pain and suffering in most of our lives. These memories contain the emotions, perceptions and physical sensations that you experienced at the time of the original event. While the image of the event may not intrude on you currently, as it often would if you had PTSD, the negative self-talk you may experience is directly related to the perspective you had at the time of the negative experience. 

The knot in the stomach, tightness in the chest, the feelings of fear, shame or powerlessness are all directly related to the earlier event. The following two exercises can help you identify some of the earlier experiences that are the foundation of your problems.

Starting with Recent Events

As with any form of therapy, EMDR begins with the client identifying the current circumstances that are disturbing. If the solution to the problem is for the person to gather information, or identify which steps to take to resolve a puzzling situation, then the distress will rapidly disappear. In many instances, in therapy sessions as in life, processing can occur naturally by reading or talking in order to make the appropriate connections. That’s how all learning takes place—by making the necessary connections between memory networks. 

So, as you think of the things that have recently disturbed you, are they ones that can be dealt with by getting more information, or by taking some specific action that you know will eliminate them? 

Or is the disturbing reaction you’re having the most recent example of a long list of similar responses? The reasons you give for your reaction may seem reasonable, But these situations arise all the time in life. 

If you identify something that bothered you recently, and it contains a disturbance that sets you off a lot, we’ll look for the Touchstone Memory. Since your present perceptions are linking into a memory network, if it contains an unprocessed experience, those encoded earlier disturbing emotions and physical sensations can arise, and whatever you’re feeling is going to distort your perception of the present event. In those cases, the current situation is triggering the old disturbance.

To systematically keep tabs on what you find, label the first page of your notebook Touchstone List, and then draw a line down the center of the page. Label the first column “Recent Events” and the second column “Memories.” 

To begin, identify some situation that upset you recently or is still bothering you. It might be a situation where you know you were overreacting but feel emotional just the same. On the SUD scale, where 0 is neutral and 10 is the most disturbing you can imagine, the recent upset should be at least a 6. On the first page of your notebook, under the heading “Recent Events,” write a brief sentence that describes what happened. Just a few words so you remember what it is when you look back at it later. 

When you think of the incident, what is the most disturbing part? 

What image in the memory represents the worst part of the event? 

For instance, the way the person looked, or what they said, or when the person walked away. If no image represents the incident, or you were anticipating a problem, just think of the worst part. 

When you hold the image/ incident in mind, what emotion comes up for you? 

Where do you feel it in your body? 

What negative thought goes along with it? 

Now hold together the image and the negative thought, and feel the physical sensations in your body. Focusing on the feelings let your mind scan back to your childhood and notice the earliest memory that pops up and comes to mind where you felt the same way. On the SUD scale (0-10), how does the old memory feel now? 

If you feel your body change for the worse, and/ or the SUD level is 3 or higher, the memory has probably not been fully processed. 

If so, pick a few words to be your cue to identify the childhood memory (for instance, lost in a mall, slapped at camp, ignored by parents, alone in the basement, caught stealing in class). 

Write down the memory opposite the recent event, including how old you were when it happened, in the “Memories” column along with the SUD score.

Returning to Neutral Make sure that you use your Breathing Shift technique or Safe/ Calm Place to return to neutral. If the exercise worked for you, and you identified an earlier memory that is still distressing, that unprocessed memory has likely set the groundwork for your reactions in the current situation. Ultimately, the goal is to have more choice about how we feel, not be unconsciously driven by emotions beyond our control. 

In EMDR therapy, the negative beliefs are identified in order to access and activate the memories that need to be processed. 

These negative cognitions are a verbal expression of the emotions and thoughts that are a part of the unprocessed memories. I’m not enough, I’m a failure, etc. 


Personal Exploration To identify the negative cognitions that are contributing to your responses, begin by bringing your negative cognition that matches the incident—and the childhood event that set the groundwork for your negative reaction. 

You can come up with it on your own, or use the list of Negative Cognitions. The negative cognition isn’t a description, so if you get triggered around coworkers who keep messing up, it wouldn’t be “I’m overwhelmed” or “He’s incompetent.” It would generally be something like “I’m powerless,” because it describes how you feel about yourself in the situation.

If we go back to early events in childhood, the same thing applies. So “Daddy was abusive” is not a negative cognition. It’s possibly a description of fact, as it was in Jon’s case. “Mother didn’t love me” is also not necessarily a negative cognition. It may be a description of fact. 

But, if it’s true, how does that make you feel about yourself? It may be “I’m not worthwhile” or you may feel “I am not lovable.” Either of these two is a negative cognition. 

Likewise, if a rape victim comes in for treatment and says, “I was in danger,” it’s true and it’s not an irrational cognition. But if the memory of the rape is unprocessed and she brings it to mind, the feelings that come up will include the sense of “I am in danger.” 

This is an irrational belief because she’s safe in the present. She’s safe in the therapist’s office. It was a correct assessment of the past, but the issue is how does it feel now? 

At the end of successful treatment, bringing up that rape should not bring up the feeling “I am not safe.” But the irrational negative cognition verbalizes the feelings she is experiencing now, in the present, and these words are a symptom. They are an expression of the stored information. 

So we use the negative cognition’s that we feel in the present to identify the unprocessed memories that are fueling them. If you identified the negative cognition that fits the recent event you wrote down in your notebook, just write it down underneath it in the same column. The same negative cognition should also match the memory in the next column. 


While we may have many ways to verbalize our distress, they generally fall into three categories: 

Responsibility (I am or did something wrong) 

Lack of safety 

Lack of control/ power 

For instance, think back and identify the first negative memory you had in your life. Since you were a child, it probably has to do with feeling powerless or not being good enough or being unsafe. Or it may be a mixture of all three. Take a look at that memory. Which of the categories does it fit the best? Being inadequate in some way? Not being safe? Or not being in control? 

It might be interesting to take a look and see if the same feelings fit some of the situations you have in the present when you overreact. The list below will take these feelings and put specific words to them under each of the three categories. Putting it into words will help you understand yourself better and identify the memories that are pushing the negative feelings.

(Insert Don Miguel Ruiz Self Domestication example of grandma food love good boy plate)

Start by thinking of the last three things that bothered you recently—or that bothered you most this past year—particularly those where you feel you were overreacting. 

Write them down in the Recent Events column, skipping a couple of lines between each one. 

Then take a look at the list of Negative Cognitions. 

Hold the first incident in mind and see which negative cognition best fits it, and write it down under the event.

If you have the feeling/ belief that “It’s my fault, I should have done something different”—ask yourself the question: What does this say about me? 

Meaning, does it make you think I am shameful/ I am stupid/ I am a bad person? 

Then choose the negative cognition that best fits and write it down under the recent event. If you can’t find one that fits, just leave the space blank for now.

After you’ve identified the negative cognition that goes with the first incident, then move on to each of the other incidents you’ve written in the Recent Events column and do the same.

Now take a moment and explore what you found. 

Do all the events have the same negative cognition? 

Or are they different but in the same category of Responsibility, Safety or Control? 

Or are they in different categories?


If you would like to find out where your negative reactions come from, we can try another exercise that we use in EMDR therapy called the Floatback technique.

Floatback Technique 

As you think of the negative cognition and the recent event, hold them both in mind. Where do you feel it in your body? 

As you think of the recent incident and the negative cognition, notice the feelings in your body, and let your mind float back to childhood. What memory comes to mind when you felt that way? 

If something automatically comes to mind, then write it down in your Memory column along with your age and the SUD level. 

Using cue words, list the earliest memories and the ones with the highest SUD level. Place them in the Memory column opposite the recent event.

Or you can Try This in Reverse.

Identify a Touchstone Memory, then look through the Negative Cognition list and see what fits best. 

When you hold that old memory in mind, how does it make you feel now? 

Sometimes it’s easier to identify when you look at an old memory than when you’re stuck in the reactions to current situations. Either way, once you identify one that feels right, you’ll often find that the negative cognition will fit both the old memory and the present situation. Then you can write it down in the appropriate column.

At some point, either alone or with a therapist’s help, people will generally identify 10 to 20 memories that are causing problems in the present. These memories generally cause a physical reaction. That is, as you close your eyes and hold them in mind, you can feel your body react and/ or will remember thoughts and feelings you had at the time. These memories are not fully processed. Each of these memories can directly affect your sense of well-being in the present. Some have helped forge your personality. Others can come up to bite whenever they are triggered.

(Insert body therapy limitations if in freeze state currently and have no access to ventral vagal state.)


Since one of the goals of EMDR therapy is to process the memories that are causing present problems, we ask clients to identify when there are situations that trigger their disturbance.

Go to a new page in your notebook and draw vertical lines to make five columns. 

Put the letter T at the top of the first column, I at the top of the second, and so forth. You’ll use the columns to fill in just a few words—bullets to describe your reactions to situations in the present that disturb you. 

T—stands for Trigger. As we know, the current situation links into your memory network. If you are overreacting, it’s generally because the situation is triggering an earlier unprocessed memory. So what happened? Was it a family argument, a look, a gesture, something said that left you feeling insulted or excluded, a problem coworker? Just list a couple of words so you remember what happened. 

I—stands for Image. When you think of the event now, what image comes to mind? For most, it will be the worst part of the event. It’s the part that really disturbs you, makes you flush with embarrassment, makes you angry, sad and so forth. 

C—stands for Cognition. Choose the negative cognition from the list that best goes along with your feelings when you think of the event. 

E—stands for Emotion. What emotion( s) are you feeling as you think of the event? 

S—stands for Sensation and SUD. Where do you feel it in your body—and what SUD number does it have?

The bottom line is that whether it’s an inability to perform at work or with family, friends or strangers on the street, an overreaction is generally caused by an unprocessed memory. If you use the TICES Log, you can choose to draw on the information in a number of ways.

1-You can use your answers to identify the memory that’s pushing the overreaction by using the Floatback or Affect Scan. If you do that, write down the recent event, negative cognition and memory (with age and SUD) in the appropriate column of your Touchstone List. If it’s a memory you already identified, then put a star next to it. That will help you recognize the ones that are especially especially powerful in running your show. I’ll be showing you a variety of different ways you can organize the Touchstone List in later chapters.

2-You can keep tabs on how many times you respond negatively to different situations and notice if they seem to cluster around certain emotions and negative cognitions. 

3-You can recognize that your responses aren’t mysterious. They are not random. They are specific reactions to certain types of situations that trigger the unprocessed memories that cause the disturbing thoughts, emotions and physical responses.

Using the TICES Log daily will give you the opportunity to review your day and clarify where you need to put your focus. 

Do you have occasional negative responses, or do they happen often? 

Do they happen with only one person in your life, or with many? 

Is it happening primarily when you are with family, on the job, with certain friends, acquaintances, strangers or alone?

It’s the same as any other physical problem that needs attention. Your brain is no different from the rest of your body. You’d go to a physician to have your arm set if you broke it—then your natural healing process would take over. But without getting help to have the bones of your arm aligned first, it wouldn’t work. The same is true of your memories and the information processing system of your brain.




In this chapter, we’ll begin looking more in depth at the types of issues that most of us deal with. I’ll give real-life examples in order to show the dynamics and undercurrents of why people develop a negative sense of “self.” 

As I’ve said before, this book is not about blame—it’s about understanding the human condition. As we explore the dynamics that influence the important early relationship between parents and children, it would be useful to see if you recognize any of these in your own family.

There is a quiet revolution taking place in how we provide help to those who have experienced trauma in their earliest years. Theories relating to developmental trauma have been slowly moving to the forefront within psychotherapy communities, trauma therapists, neuroscientists, and perhaps most of all, clients who are seeking help for their lifelong challenges.

We now know from a growing body of research that early trauma takes a staggering toll on our physical, psychological, emotional, and social health. Those who have experienced developmental trauma struggle to receive treatment that adequately addresses their complex symptoms, which often cross boundaries between symptoms that require medical attention and those that require psychological treatment. - Nurturing Resilience