At least half the people reading this post will endure or have already endured a traumatic experience. This fact is daunting. But balance that with the number of effective treatments available. One such approach is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Sometimes when people hear about EMDR therapy, they wonder “Does EMDR work if you can’t remember? “.
EMDR is a short-term therapy designed to stimulate both the right and left hemispheres) of your brain. This is accomplished in an unconventional way. Tools include hand and finger movements, audio tones, and even hand-held buzzers. EMDR has a stellar record of resolving trauma. But… what if you can’t fully remember your trauma?
EMDR: The Basics
Before you can fully grasp how EMDR can resolve even the trauma you’ve repressed, you should understand the basics of this treatment. Let’s begin with the trauma part.
As stated above, trauma is common. Such a harrowing experience can get “stuck” in your brain. The images, sensations, sounds, and more get stored in an unhealthy way. These memories are recalled in ugly fragments without warning or context.
EMDR is designed to process those fragments. Generally speaking, the client is asked to strongly recall any aspect of the event in question. Then, using the tools listed above, the therapist can help them resolve the trauma and replace it with a positive thought or memory.
But again: What if you can’t fully remember your trauma? Does EMDR work if you can’t remember?
What If You Can’t Remember Trauma During EMDR Therapy?
Let’s begin with the good news: You absolutely can process memories without remembering them in their entirety. EMDR shows an effective track record in such instances. Here are some to consider when pondering this scenario:
- It’s not about accuracy: A memory contains a lot of information. All you need is a vague sense of these memories to begin the EMDR process. That is almost always enough to trigger the somatic responses that facilitate the treatment.
- It’s not rare: There’s nothing to fear or feel bad about. Many, if not most, folks do not have a total recall of the traumatic event. Keep in mind that a qualified EMDR therapist can work with whatever memories arise. There is no prompting to create fake memories or overwrite your own memories.
- Memories are carefully invoked: Your therapist can use a wide range of prompts—photographs, social media posts, smells, sounds, etc.—to provoke a negative reaction that can be processed.
- Your therapist is prepared for this possibility: Again, it’s not rare for a client to only have a hazy recollection. Your therapist will screen you for dissociation in advance to possibly foresee this situation.
- Things could take a tiny bit longer: EMDR is famous for the brevity of the treatment. In cases like this, things will still move quickly—just not as quickly as usual.
You Will Still Reap the Rewards
Rest assured that you are not under any pressure to remember what is currently repressed. Your therapist works with what you give them. From there, you can enjoy the myriad benefits of EMDR. Here are just two examples:
After years or even decades of suffering, you are releasing painful information. Your nervous system gets a much-needed break. Even if some symptoms linger, they will only do so in an extremely dialed-down way. The relief will be palpable.
The presence of unresolved trauma in your body also traps certain perspectives in your mind. By processing these memories, you create space for your brain to see the past, present, and future in a much more healthy and positive way.