Childhood trauma can seem like a ghost. You don’t always know it’s there, but it will rattle around in the attic of your mind and try to get your attention. Just like the spooky kind of ghost, it can make your life a nightmare if not addressed.

When trauma manifests as a hungry, unhappy ghost from your past, it can haunt you with memories or through suppressed memories. This is because trauma memories get stored in the limbic system and may not have a way to get out if you are not actively addressing them. They can be loud and scary and you may have tried to quiet them by seeking refuge in substances, addictions and unhealthy behaviors.

EMDR Tries to Scare Away the Ghosts

In EMDR therapy, a leading trauma therapy, the goal is always to find the touchstone memory, which is the most frightening ghost in the attic. There are other little ghosts floating around, too, and they represent the smaller traumas in your life or the traumas that followed the first one. Banded together, they can stir up trouble and emotional pain.

During an EMDR therapy session, many small ghosts may hover about, but they are all being fed by the big trauma ― the touchstone memory. So that’s the most important one to find.

The touchstone memory may be haunting you because your brain captured it and froze it in the limbic system, with the hopes to process it in time. But then, life went on. You had to get up the next day, go to school, or more traumas happened. The initial traumatic event got pushed down, further and further. And life just kept pushing it down with negative experiences and more traumas. Small trauma attached to the biggest trauma. The trauma expanded and you never got a chance to deal with the original issue.

Trauma therapy can change that. In an EMDR therapy session, you may find these memories distressing as they arise, so we keep talking them through as we get closer to the root of the problem. For example, the original memory might be feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes the brain will take other instances in which you felt inadequate and attach them to that original memory.

In EMDR therapy, when we’re processing the original memory, all of these other memories will pop up and the common thread is that feeling of inadequacy.

Clearing the Cobwebs

Sometimes we have to go into the attic with a broom and clear away the cobwebs and sweep out old debris, and your brain needs a clearing as well.

In a sense, EMDR therapy is like a ghost hunt for that one, big, original target memory. To find it, we often have to try to clear out the channel and dust the cobwebs away. Once discovered, it can be fully processed and as a result many of the other traumatic memories will tumble away. If there are some that don’t tumble away, we can address them individually.

You Don’t Have to Be Scared Anymore

When the trauma happens, your brain stores it at the age the trauma occurred. For example, if you were abused as a 5-year-old, all of your mental capabilities or lack of capabilities at the age of 5 are stored. They become frozen in time in your brain. In trauma therapy, you can go back as an adult and process them from an adult mentality.

Childhood fears can fall away because the trauma will no longer haunt you.

And don’t even need a Proton Pack, a la “Ghostbusters,” because your own brain is like a computer. Once it fully processes the original trauma, the brain heals itself. It restructures the memory in a positive and adaptive format, so you have a completely different perspective on the situation. Then it stores it in your long-term memory ― as a memory, not as a hungry ghost from the past.


By Ginger Poag, MSW, LCSW, Trauma Therapist at The Ranch


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