traumatic memory

Working with traumatic memory

Do you have a troublesome or traumatic memory? Or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome?

A common belief is that once you have one of these memories then you are stuck with it for life, and little can be done about it.

Recent research confirms that this is not so, and that it is possible to neutralise traumatic memories in therapy. One way to do that is to interfere with the way in which the brain accesses these memories. This is the basis for the EMDR technique which disrupts access to traumatic memories by asking subjects to keep their eyes on a moving finger while trying to recall the trauma at the same time.

One reason for this is that memories are not fixed. Over time memories evolve into something very different from the original (rather like a game of Chinese whispers). Research shows that each time a memory is retrieved the brain either adds to it, removes from it, or distorts it in some other way. Memories can even be altered by suggestions from other people. The same can apply to traumatic memories addressed in psychotherapy. For example, discussing an event in the past in a safe environment with different interpretations, in a state of relaxation, and a focus on what can be learned from experience is a very different experience from everyday trauma.

Disrupting memories

When we recall traumas we don’t actually recall what happened. Instead we remember what happened to us the last time we thought about what happened. To put that another way – each time we ‘remember’ something, what we actually recall is the last time we remembered that event. If what we ‘remember’ is that we got anxious, then anxiety will re-appear.

But if we interrupt recall (using distraction techniques) then we interfere with the brain’s ability to re-gather the memory as it existed before, and also to any anxiety attached to it.

This was what Thomas Agren from the University of Uppsala has demonstrated. Two groups were given electric shocks when shown an image, resulting in an artificial fear of the picture. However, when one group tried to recall the memory they were shown the original picture over and over again, thus stopping them from recalling the memory they had formed of the picture. In that group their anxiety was erased while in the other group the anxiety was retained. MRI scans for subjects in the former group confirmed that the image no longer activated neurons in the amygdala (the anxiety-processing centre in the brain).

Using EMDR to neutralise a traumatic memory

The EMDR technique, as explained above, uses distraction to interfere with the brain’s access to stored memory (which is really a memory about another memory). You can read more about how that works here.

Yet more proof that therapy for trauma can be simple as well as brief.


Photo by Susan Wilkinson on Unsplash


5 thoughts on “Removing a traumatic memory”
  1. John, what do you think of the need to work with dissociative parts for those who were chronically abused as children? Would welcome your comments. Thanks..

    1. Hi Angela. Not all child-abuse survivors have dissociated ‘parts’ but where this does occur I think it is necessary to carry out some re-integrative work and I have done so myself on a few occasions. Kind regards JOHN

      1. Thanks John. What sort of reintegrative work do you do? Is it like the work that Sandra Paulsen “looking through the eyes of trauma and dissociation” and Suzette Boon et al “Coping with trauma related dissociation” do where different child parts are worked with? I have had a lot of emdr and think it’s great, but still have some problems. I find the dissociation work to be difficult and kind of weird, frankly. Do you have the same approach as these authors or have you another way of handling the residual problems? I had reverse therapy a few years ago, which was helpful, but then I realised that childhood trauma seemed to stopping me from being able to successfully respond to the messages my body sent. So I improved but not nearly enough. CPTSD was set off very badly by a new “attack” from my family just over a year ago and so I had and am still having emdr – which I think is marvellous. Any suggestions for the ongoing dissociation. Mindfulness. body awareness activities and listening to recordings of brain patterns are all good.

  2. Hi Angela. A lot depends on the type and degree of dissociation although my preferred approach is to communicate to each part, establish it’s intentions and purposes and persuade him/her to reintegrate on the basis that those intentions and purposes will be satisfied.

    I am very glad to hear that EMDR is working for you and I hope that this resolves the problem for you.

    Kind regards JOHN

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