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So what happens if you’re working with a client and you want to help them to overcome a childhood trauma, but they don’t want to go back into their childhood at all. They want to stay only in the present. How can you help somebody overcome something from their history if they’re not prepared to go back there?
Well, in actual fact, you can. The great thing about this work is that it allows the client to have the kind of therapy process they want. If they don’t want to go backwards, then we can stay in the relative present and still give them the transformation they need using Memory Reconsolidation.
In this post we will cover:
- What the brain needs
- Encoding v reactivation
- Using recent events to erase trauma
What the brain needs
Memory Reconsolidation is the brain’s natural mechanism for healing trauma. The brain needs three things for that to occur.
Firstly, there needs to be a reactivation of the old trauma response.
The second thing that the brain needs is for there to be an experience that disconfirms the old story that shows up in that reactivation.
To complete the job, the brain needs those two things to repeat. So the reactivation and the disconfirmation – the old and the new – need to keep on bumping into each other.
If you do those three things, it triggers the brain mechanism of Memory Reconsolidation.
The thing to bear in mind here is that this reactivation is happening in the present for the client. If it wasn’t happening in the present for the client, it wouldn’t be showing up as a problem for them. It would simply be an event that once happened to them that no longer impacts their life.
But it does. The old trauma response reactivates in their present life. That means that we can work directly with that reactivation.
This is helpful when the client doesn’t have a strong memory of the initial event too.
Encoding v reactivation
Think of the physical brain pathway. When the old traumatic event occurred, (or series of traumatic events), a response was encoded into that brain pathway. That response may be spikey – fight or flight.
The client might not fully remember or want to revisit the moment it was originally encoded. But our client’s present-day problem occurs because that encoding still reactivates today.
Even if they don’t remember how it got there, they can definitely connect to how it shows up today.
It reactivates – perhaps with anxiety or anger or whatever – in recent history. Perhaps the client recounts a tale of how it showed up since you last saw them.
Using recent events to erase trauma
To trigger Memory Reconsolidation, the brain just needs reactivation and an experience that disconfirms it. We don’t need to re-evoke the initial event.
Re-evoking the initial event is merely an option. Some clients might want to. It may help them get some meaning of where this comes from for them and help them make even more sense of it.
But they don’t have to, because the very fact that it’s a problem in their life today means that reactivation is happening fairly regularly already.
We can take a recent example of reactivation and work with that instead. So long as they experientially connect to that recent example we can generate a mismatch experience that disconfirms it.
This experiential mismatch could be digging into alternative experiences that disprove the old story. It could use imaginal work in order to create the mismatch experience. But however you choose to do it, the client doesn’t need to go back to the original events because the reactivation also happens today.
Some clients don’t like to go back into their early history, either because it’s too distressing or they can’t don’t have a clear enough memory of it. Others simply prefer to stay in the present.
To erase trauma responses, the brain needs reactivation plus a repeated mismatch experience.
As such, we don’t need to go back to the initial event. The old trauma still touches their life today. Whenever it does, the reactivation of that trauma is already occurring.
We can use these present-day reactivations to trigger memory reconsolidation.
This means that it’s not essential to go backwards in order to erase a trauma response. We can do, or we can choose to work with what reactivates in current life instead. The client can get the therapy process that best fits them without compromising on the outcome.
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