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Take Control of your Life with EMDR Therapy


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


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 hardwiring 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


"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.

The nursery rhyme has even more to offer. Remember the line that comes

after “Violets are blue”? “Sugar is sweet and so are you.” Lovely sentiment, and

it also comes to mind automatically. But as we all know, while sugar is surely

sweet, people are lots more complicated. Everyone is a mixture of sweet, sour

and every flavor and variation under the sun. At some point, everyone is angry,

sad, jealous, bitter, hurt, insecure, happy or sweet. And when we are, we act

accordingly. One moment we cherish the one we are with and cover them with

kisses. A day later we may explode and yell at them in frustration. So, basically,

some of what we’ve learned growing up is true, but just as with all the other

experiences we’ve had through childhood, other things are not. Often as

youngsters we can’t tell the difference, and what we take to be real—such as

believing we are inferior because we are bullied or rejected, or thinking we are

responsible for our parents’ divorce—are really just misperceptions.

Nevertheless, these experiences can have effects that come up automatically

throughout the rest of our lives, outside our conscious control.

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.

Let’s take the first case from page 1:

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?

Justine has no problems getting boyfriends. Her problem is keeping them.

Now 25 years old, she generally picks men with an “edge” who are emotionally

unavailable. Then every time she gets into a relationship, she begins acting

clingy and her boyfriend eventually breaks up with her. When this happens, she

begins to cry hysterically, falling to her knees and putting her arms around the

man’s legs, pleading with him not to leave her. In therapy, the cause of this was

tracked back to something that happened on a Sunday evening when she was 6

years old. Justine was living with her parents in a two-story house. On that night

there was a severe thunderstorm, causing her to become very frightened.

Upstairs in her bedroom, she began crying and yelling for her mommy and

daddy to come to her. However, they were in the kitchen on the first floor. The

storm drowned out her screams, and they didn’t hear her. They never came to

her rescue and she eventually cried herself to sleep.

How could something as common as this be responsible for her problems?

All of us have experienced loud storms sometime in childhood, but only some of

us will remain negatively affected by it. We’ll go into the detailed reasons for

this in later chapters. For now, it’s sufficient to know that 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. That stormy night Justine was

intensely frightened as a child, and had the belief that she was in danger. Her

parents didn’t come when she cried for them, which also gave her the feeling

that she would be abandoned if she really needed them. This memory, stored in

her brain with the intense fear she experienced at 6 years old, is stimulated

whenever a boyfriend breaks up with her. At this point, she no longer functions

as a mature and successful 25-year-old, but instead as a frightened little girl left

a lone in the dark. We can see the connection, given that the storm and a breakup

are both associated with aloneness and abandonment. As such, she

unconsciously experiences the breakup as “being in danger.”

We experience these types of connections all the time. It’s generally the

reason for all of the characteristics we love or hate in ourselves and the people

around us. It’s simply part of the way the brain functions in order to make sense

of the world. But identifying the memory connections is just the first step in

changing how we think, act or feel. It’s not just understanding where something

comes from, but also knowing what to do about it that’s important. 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; and how to recognize when further professional help would be useful.

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). Millions of people have

been helped by the therapy over the past 20 years, and many of them are giving

detailed reports in this book in order to help “demystify” the change process. As

research has shown, major changes can take place within even one EMDR

reprocessing session. The clients’ reports allow us a “window into the brain,”

since the connections they made answer so many questions about why we react

to the world in different ways.

EMDR therapy targets the unprocessed memories that contain the negative

emotions, sensations and beliefs. By activating the brain’s information

processing system (which will be explained in Chapter 2), 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.

For instance, Justine’s clinician focused on the thunderstorm along with the

feeling she had of being alone and in danger. Once the memory of the

thunderstorm was processed, the childhood sensations of terror disappeared and

were replaced by the feeling of safety, and the belief that as an adult she could

take care of herself. Along with that, the boyfriend problem resolved as her new

sense of self resulted in her making different romantic choices. Of course there

would be more memories that might have to be dealt with if Justine’s parents

had 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. In the past

century there have been new advances in neurobiological technologies that have

expanded our understanding of what these “forces” actually are. The

examination of the unconscious we are dealing with in this book is one that is

based on the workings of the brain itself. Through an understanding of how

experiences lay the physical groundwork for our emotional and physical

reactions, we can determine how our “stuck” points and knee-jerk mental

responses came about and what to do about them.

For instance, let’s take the second case:

Ben is a successful businessman. Why is he hit with anxiety whenever he has

to make a presentation? Here’s how he described it:

“As long as I can remember, I’ve had anxiety about doing any performance

in front of a group of people. My palms sweat, my voice becomes unpredictable,

my heart beats fast and I have thoughts like, ‘I’m an idiot. I can’t do this.

Everyone will hate me.’ It sometimes felt as though my life was at risk. Sounds

ridiculous, but it was so true. As I went through school, there were many times

in the normal course of events when I had to make public presentations. In my

professional career the same thing happened. I always made it through these

events, but not happily. In fact, I suffered before and after every event, and

tediously went over every detail with my loved ones, which, as you might

imagine, did not delight them. No matter what I tried, nothing seemed to fix this

problem. I tried many types of therapy. Sometimes it seemed a little better, but it

always came roaring back.”

Ben entered into EMDR therapy and used a variety of procedures that we’ll

learn in this book to identify the source of his problem and change his reactions.

Here’s what he discovered: “It turns out the cause was something that happened

to me when I was no more than 3½ years old. I was walking with my grandfather

on his farm in western North Carolina. My memory here is as if I was looking

up, like a very small child. I don’t remember chattering away to my grandfather,

but if family stories can be trusted, I probably was. We met a strange man on the

road. He was old, bent, angry looking, with very hairy nostrils. He said to my

grandfather in his mountain drawl, ‘Well, howdy, if I had a youn-gun’ talked as

much as that un, I’d drown him in the creek.’ I slipped behind my grandfather’s

denim-covered leg, peered up the man’s nostrils and shut up. I knew that

unwanted kittens were in fact ‘drowned in the creek.’ It did not seem safe to

chatter in front of strangers.”

So, this child’s moment of terror set the groundwork for his problem. The

memory became stored in his brain and set him up for failure: “I did my first

book report in third grade in front of my beloved Ms. Kneenor, a young, pretty,

first-year teacher. I loved Ms. Kneenor, and was very proud of the fact that my

book report was three pages long. I had worked very hard on it. I had also

developed a slight stutter, which lasted all of about six months before leaving as

mysteriously as it began. My parents had handled this pretty well, and I wasn’t

aware of being self-conscious about it. I had daydreams of Ms. K praising me

and telling the class what a great report I had done. Instead, Ms. K stayed in the

back of the room in out-of-control laughter during my whole report. As I

shuffled through my report, the stutter getting worse as I went, I thought, ‘I’m an

idiot.’ Then two years later I was recruited at the last minute to do a part in a

school play. I was in the middle of the first act when I forgot my lines. I stood in

the middle of the stage stock-still. I thought, ‘Everyone will hate me. I have

ruined the play. I’m an idiot.’”

Notice that Ben had these same thoughts going through his mind 40 years

later when he needed to make a presentation at work: “I’m an idiot. I can’t do

this. Everyone will hate me.” He had no idea before EMDR therapy why he was

feeling and thinking that way. He did not have a visual image of his

grandfather’s farm, or the book report, or the school play—he just had the

feelings and thoughts that went along with it. This was an automatic response to

an external “trigger,” just as much as “Roses are red” causes “Violets are blue.”

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.

People with PTSD clearly have the negative experience stored in their brain

in a way that is highly disturbing. So when a combat veteran with PTSD thinks

back to an event that happened in Iraq or Afghanistan three years ago, he can

feel it in his body, with the thoughts and images that were there at the time of the

event. The veteran who came back from the Vietnam War can think of

something that happened more than 30 years ago, and the same thing happens. A

Marine who has gone through many tours of duty and witnessed many casualties

can be haunted by one particular death. When he thinks about it he can feel the

same helplessness, pain, sorrow and anger he felt at the time. And he responds to

the world around him with those emotions.

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 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



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.

For instance, let’s take a look at our third example:

Why does Stacey have 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.

Stacey tried one therapist after another for years. There are more than 100

different kinds of therapy, and each therapist brings a personal perspective,

which also changes the way the treatment is applied. Sometimes it’s difficult for

people to find the right treatment—or the right therapist. Also, clinical situations

can be complicated, because sometimes a childhood event is so disturbing that it

can completely overwhelm the brain’s natural ability to process it, and it’s either

not stored at all or becomes completely cut off so the person can’t remember it.

That was one of Stacey’s problems. After years of therapy with little change in

symptoms, she arrived at a therapist who tried a variety of avenues and also got

no results. Since Stacey had no idea where the problems came from, and had

abandonment issues, intimacy problems, eating difficulties, panic and anxiety,

her clinician said to her, “It really sounds like you have been sexually abused.”

In addition, because she had recurrent images of the color red and a candle, he

suggested that maybe it was ritual abuse because those images would fit right

into satanic worship ceremonies. As you can imagine, that made her anxiety

even worse. So for two years, they probed her life story, trying without success

to find memories of ritual abuse.

Since she was still suffering, Stacey tried another therapist where she learned

about EMDR. Because she didn’t have recall of anything she consciously felt

was connected to the feelings of dread, anxiety, fears of abandonment and her

eating disorder, the therapist targeted the symptoms that could most directly lead

to the underlying memory: the image of the color red and a candle. After the

appropriate preparation, during the memory processing procedures, images from

her childhood emerged and she saw herself at about 5 years old. It was her

birthday. Her daddy gave her a scented candle for her room and then they went

off in the car to her birthday luncheon. As they are driving along singing

together, a car runs a stoplight and crashes into them, killing her father. So if her

father died next to her on the way to her birthday luncheon, the symptoms

become explainable. As you can see, from this you could easily develop eating

problems, abandonment issues and persistent anxiety.

But sometimes memories can be misleading, because they can simply be

images that conform to the feelings we have. For instance, children can believe

that something bad happened to them because they heard a story or saw

something on television. Think of all the children who develop nightmares after

watching frightening movies. Was Stacey really in the car when her father was

killed? Stacey knew that her father had died in a car accident but she’d had no

memory of being with him. You don’t know unless you get confirmation. She

called up her mother and asked, “Mom, is it true? Was I with Dad when he

died?” Her mother said, “Well, yes dear, you were, but we thought you didn’t

want to talk about it because you never mentioned it.” So even though Stacey

had a very loving mother who wanted to protect her and no direct memory of her

father’s death, she had years of symptoms that seemed totally irrational. Now

they made sense. And more important, they disappeared after the memory was


It’s important to remember that we don’t have to undergo a major trauma

such as a father’s death or a car accident to develop symptoms that last for years.

For instance, Janice came in for therapy with a very long history of taking too

many antacids. At this point it was life threatening because she was taking them

so often that they were practically ripping up her stomach. She also had no

memory of why it had started; she only knew that she was horrified of getting

sick to her stomach. The clinician used the EMDR procedures you’ll be learning

to find the source of these feelings. What Janice then remembered was being in

grade school when the girl next to her in class vomited. Trying to stop herself,

the girl put her hand over her mouth and the vomit went sideways into Janice’s

hair. Janice went running out of the room feeling panicky, humiliated and

unclean. This was the memory at the bottom of the antacid abuse. After

processing the memory, she no longer felt the need for them.

So if there is a symptom, the message is that there is usually some

experience that caused or is contributing to it. Something 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.

Extract from one of my text books on my Psychology Diploma Course. Self help techniques from EMDR Therapy - Francine Shapiro PHD

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