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People thinking about seeking out EMDR therapy may wonder whether it has the potential to bring up repressed memories, which may elicit fear in some people who are reticent to revisit past experiences. Is this part of the process and is there anything to be frightened of?

Tapping into and processing past traumatic experiences is indeed a crucial part of the EMDR process, and with that it involves some necessary discomfort, since you are revisiting the most difficult and distressing experiences of your life. However, the entire process operates within a safe, controlled environment which ensures these experiences never become overwhelming.

We have also covered this general topic in our article on whether EMDR can make you feel worse. Whilst there is some initial distress in revisiting traumatic memories, re-awakening these experiences and associated thoughts and feelings is what allows the processing of them to occur through the eye movements. However, it is essential to work with an accredited therapist specialized in EMDR to avoid any risks with repressed memories. We recommend using Betterhelp to find an an EMDR specialist online. Not all therapists are competent in EMDR and it is very important to pick the right one. By simply filling out this form, you will be matched with an EMDR specialist that can help you with repressed memories. Patients report a liberating sense of detachment and freedom from these memories once the EMDR treatment has stimulated the required processing of the memories.

In addition, the treatment can also bring up other repressed memories which the client may have completely forgotten about. Accessing and processing a traumatic experience the client is currently aware of to some extent can lead the mind to bring up other memories which are in some way connected and allow processing of these repressed memories as well.

In this way the EMDR process does have a potential ripple effect in several contexts. Firstly, dealing with one experience opens up more avenues for more repressed experiences to come up and also be dealt with. Secondly, processing one or a few key standout experiences to resolution also has the knock on effect of also processing all related experiences to resolution in that class of experience (eg. humiliation, physical assault, ridicule etc).

There is nothing to be frightened of in this; since EMDR therapists are all rigorously trained to conduct the process in a safe controlled way and allow the client to stop the process at any time. EMDR also allows more comprehensive healing to occur since a greater amount of repressed psychological “baggage” can be dealt with. This makes for very efficient therapy.

Let’s look in more detail at how EMDR works and how the retrieval of repressed memories can be a key part of the process.

The EMDR Process in Brief

Here a a very quick summary of how the process of EMDR works in very general terms. It has been developed and refined over several decades into a very clear 8 step process that has been shown to be very effective in dealing with trauma. Here are the general steps of the process.

  1. Client History – Identify target memories.
  2. Preparation – Prepare the client appropriately for the therapy.
  3. Assessment – Fully assess and evaluate target memories, feelings, beliefs etc.
  4. Desensitization – Use eye movements or other forms of bilateral simulation to process memories.
  5. Installation – Install positive beliefs about self to replace negative beliefs and affects associated with memories.
  6. Body Scan – Eliminate any remaining physiological symptoms with further bilateral stimulation.
  7. Closure – Return client to safe calm equilibrium as session ends.
  8. Re-evaluation – Check that all aspects of memory have been fully processed.

Of course there can be variability between practitioners and each therapist may slightly tailor the process for each individual client they have. However, fully tapping in neurologically to past memories which are partially or completely repressed is a crucial part of the process, which allows the processing to occur through bilateral stimulation.

Retrieval of Memories a Key Part of the Process

Accessing repressed distressing memories is a crucial part of the EMDR process. We should add to this the caveat that repression does not exist on a on/off scale but rather on a continuum. A client may bring with them some past experiences which are currently bothering them – they keep going over them in their mind and can’t seem to “let them go”.

These experiences are not repressed in the literal full on sense of the word, in that the person is consciously aware of them and is still bothered by them on a day to day basis. Full repression implies that something is so distressing that it is pushed out of the person’s awareness altogether. They forget something and then forget that they forgot about it.

However, on the continuum of repession, the memory has still been “pushed back” somewhat; however it continues to push back into the person’s conscious awareness on a daily basis on the form of flashbacks or some other symptoms. They could be seen to be partially repressed.

The EMDR process involves tapping the person fully into these experiences, getting them back in touch with the sounds, sights, tastes, touches associated with it. From this full “tuning back in” to the experiences comes the potential to actually stimulate the mind/brain to process it to resolution using the eye movmements or other forms of bilateral stimulation.

Patients who successfully undergo this EMDR process report a great relieving and unburdening from distressing memories which may have been bothering them for months or years before. They do not now bother the person nearly as much. They are seen as just another memory, without the same strong emotional dynamics attached to them.

Cornerstone Memories

However, as well as EMDR resolving these memories that the person has “brought in” with them that they are somewhat consciously aware of, EMDR therapist will also encourage the client to go further back and get back in touch with more deeply repressed memories from early childhood.

For example, if the client brings in with them a more recent experience of ridicule which bothered them for example, then the therapist may encourage them to continue tracing their memories back further and further, trying to find the earliest experience of ridicule that is buried inside them.

These early memories are often called cornerstone memories, in the sense that they are often foundational traumas upon which all similar traumas are built. Processing the core or cornerstone experience within a certain class of traumatic experiences (eg. rejection, ridicule, invalidation, physical abuse etc) can help to pull this class of traumatic experience out by the root and process all other similar experiences to resolution.

In this sense there is a very real aspect of digging into the person’s memory with EMDR and bringing up repressed experiences which can then be processed to resolution. The efficient nature of EMDR, where key experiences can represent a whole class of experiences and be treated accordingly, makes it a very attractive therapy for people who have suffered a lot of trauma in their lives.

The Ripple Effect

In the sections above we have focused on memories the person is either already is aware of to some extent, or which are traced back to by the therapist encouraging the person to dig deeper into the more recent memories they brought in with them to see if they have an earlier source memory which they are ultimately derived from.

However, another thing which can happen in the process of EMDR is that in the process of diving back into and processing certain memories, other memories and associated thoughts can spontaneously appear out of nowhere as the process unfolds.

These might be small, seemingly minute memories of minor incidents, or more significant memories which the person had forgotten about completely. What is usually happening here is the memory is somewhow connected or related in the person’s mind to the main memory being worked on, and “loosening” this up also brings up other memories which are attached to it into the person’s conscious mind.

We will borrow some authority from an expert to illustrate this point. Experienced EMDR practitioner Dr James Alexander goes through how this process can work in the excellent video above. Here is how he describes the uncovering of memories through the process, and how one thing can lead to another once an initial memory starts being worked on.

He describes an example scenario where a distressing memory of a person having their bike smashed up by bullies at school is the main memory being worked on, but as part of the process the client is also encouraged to pay careful attention to whatever else comes up whilst this memory is being processed and let the therapist know.

“So whatever it is that presents itself to your awareness (during the EMDR process), I want you to tell me….And I’ll ask you not to edit what you’re telling me

So say for example the image of a goldfish pops into your mind when I ask you what you’re noticing or when you eyes are moving backwards and forwards….and you decide ‘well I’m not going to say goldfish because that sounds too silly, it’s got nothing to do with my bike being stolen and smashed up (or other distressing experience) and I’ll just feel really stupid saying goldfish, I’d ask you to tell me anyway.

Now it may be, that you’d forgotten all about it, but the next day when you went back to school, the kid who you sat next to said ‘hey, I just got a new goldfish last night’. And you couldn’t care less because you were traumatized about being bullied and your bike being smashed up and getting in trouble with your parents and then having to face the bullies the next day at school.

So you didn’t even take it in that he’d told you that..or you couldn’t care less about it, but as part of the stream of memory it basically comes up, while your eyes are moving backwards any forwards.

Any if that’s what presents itself, I’ll ask you to tell me – ‘I’ve got a goldfish popped into my mind’ – because if you don’t tell me, we could be stopping a stream of memory which could lead somewhere really useful.

And we don’t know where it’s going to lead to, but there’s the potential that any of these things could lead somewhere really useful. If if you don’t tell me, we’re simply cutting off at option. And I’d rather we didn’t cut off that option.

Dr James Alexander

This is an excellent example of how once it starts, the EMDR process can allow the client to branch out and access repressed memories, significant or insignificant, which they had completely forgotten about in the process of working on a single memory.

In this way the process can end up in a completely different place to where the client initially intended as one thing leads to another and deeply buried memories which are in some cases more fundamental and “core” to a person’s trauma can be uncovered, leading to a deeper and wider level of resolution.

The video below also offers an excellent account of how this works from a former EMDR patient. She express her surprise at just how deeply the therapy was able to penetrate into memories, thoughts and feelings she had completely forgotten about. This is a common experience with EMDR, and is one explanation for it’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Safeguards Built Into the Process

It is understandable that some people reading this may be somewhat put off from the thought of accessing repressed memories which may be very distressing to revisit. In visiting traumatic experiences there is definitely the power to re-traumatize the person.

This is why there are safeguards built into the EMDR process to ensure the process does not become too distressing for the client to the point they risk being re-traumatized, and also that the client has the power to stop the process at any time.

This is another point that is well covered in the first ten minutes of the above presentation by Dr James Alexander. One of the key aims of the EMDR process is to allow patients to revisit traumatic experiences, but do so with a very real sense of power and control that wasn’t there when they initially experienced it.

This includes having the power to stop the process if ever it becomes overwhelming. In reality patients and therapists report that this very rarely happens, but the option is alway there if ever that does happen. Most patients can cope fine with whatever comes up.

In this way the experience is re-worked to the extent that the person feels positive or self enhancing rather than self defeating beliefs about themself when they revisit the memory. By placing the client in control of the memories and also in control of the process itself, it becomes much easier to let go of the trauma and see it as just another memory, without the same emotional sting it had before.

All EMDR therapists are rigorously trained in delivering the treatment in a way that is safe but also effective, so whilst there is a potential risk of distress in accessing repressed memories, there is nothing to fear from EMDR as long as it is conducted with a qualified practitioner.

See our page on Finding a Therapist if you think EMDR might be something you want to pursue.

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  • Mary-Beth Zolik, M.Ed LMHC

    Mary-Beth is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with a M.Ed in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Montevallo. Mary-Beth has been in the field of psychology in a variety of roles for the past 20 years.

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