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  • Writer's pictureWill Dempsey

EMDR - What If I Can’t Remember Trauma?

When exploring whether or not EMDR therapy is right for a client, one of the more common concerns that comes up for them is difficulty remembering trauma. Some people may have a vague, indistinct impression of a traumatic event — something that’s actually quite common. In other scenarios, people may be skeptical about EMDR because they aren’t sure they’ve ever experienced trauma. They’ve been taught what happened to them wasn’t so bad — that they should toughen up and get over it.

In today’s post, we’ll explore how EMDR therapy can help you identify and remember your trauma.


What Is Trauma?


Trauma is the result of any sufficiently stressful experience. We tend to associate trauma with things like sexual assault, physical abuse, or being the victim of violent crime — but the reality of trauma is far more nuanced. Whether physical or emotional, our bodies respond to danger via the fight-or-flight instinct. When our fight-or-flight instinct is activated, our heart rate picks up, and we start breathing differently. Our body produces cortisol and adrenaline — stress hormones that change how we create and store memories.


Critically, trauma is subjective. What is traumatic to one person might not be to another, and what is traumatic to a child might not seem traumatic to an adult. The critical component is the triggering of our fight-or-flight instinct and the associated physiological changes. People who grow up in unstable or threatening environments experience trauma regularly — repeated wear and tear that takes a toll.


How Can EMDR Help?


Traumatic events are frequently stored as implicit memory. A simple way to understand implicit memory is to think of it as muscle memory — learning to ride a bike or knowing how it feels to burn your hand on a hot stovetop. This is a self-defense mechanism. Our bodies learn to identify danger and put us in a state of heightened alert when it’s detected — but those triggers are often unconscious.



Through bilateral stimulation, EMDR therapy stimulates the areas of the brain where implicit memories are stored. This normally allows us to recall those events with greater clarity — but even when that isn’t the case, we can explore and reprocess trauma memories by identifying circumstances and sensory cues that trigger us.


Skilled Guidance


In addition to identifying and reprocessing traumatic memories through the use of bilateral stimulation, EMDR therapists are skilled at helping clients explore their past to recall traumatic memories. Sometimes, the difficulty with remembering our trauma comes from a reluctance to acknowledge past trauma.


When traumatic memories are buried deeply, starting small with more recent memories from your life is helpful, such as things that triggered a panic attack or an emotional outburst. These small memories, seemingly unimportant, provide a trail of breadcrumbs we can follow back to deeper, more foundational ones.


Resourcing Tools


EMDR also makes use of imaginal tools to help track and identify traumatic experiences. Clients are guided through imagining different situations or scenarios that might trigger a change in their emotional state. This same imaginal resourcing process can also be used to help us build a sense of safety when we’re feeling threatened or unsafe. These might be memories of people we trust, places we have felt at peace, etc.


Bilateral stimulation allows us to turn those feelings of emotional safety and peace into a tool. We can use that tool to navigate stressful situations and defuse self-destructive patterns of behavior in the future.


Schedule A Consultation


Whether or not you experienced past trauma, EMDR therapy may be able to help you find balance in your life. EMDR therapy has proven effective in helping people resolve PTSD, anxiety, depression, addiction — even sexual dysfunction. Reach out to learn more about trauma or EMDR therapy.

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