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Memory Reconsolidation Therapy: The Process Explained

What is Trauma?

What we commonly call trauma is a fragmented recollection of events that were created when so much fear or grief was present that the thinking part of your brain shut down. The shutdown of thinking because of the excessive fear or grief causes your brain to not completely process the experience. Not everybody has the same experience at the same event. Some people suffer these intrusive memories after and some don't.

 

Traumatic experiences often occur around experiencing--or even witnessing--these sorts of events:

  •  Natural disasters (for example, floods, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes)

  •  Accidents (for example, auto accidents, plane crashes, boating mishaps)

  • Sexual assaults

  • Childhood or other abuse

  • Violent arguments

  • Life-threatening moments (for example, robbery, warfare, other uniformed services)

  • Many others, including the 10,000 repetitive small wounds inflicted sometimes in childhood that can lead to Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD)

Easing Symptoms vs.
Healing Underlying Causes

Many trauma therapies focus on reducing the symptoms caused by traumatic memories using techniques such as:

  • Distress tolerance - learning to live with the awful feelings

  • Coping - learning to operate in the world while the battle rages in your mind

  • Grounding Techniques - learning ways to calm and self-regulate when a traumatic memory is activated

  • Mindfulness - learning how to remain present when the memories encourage you to daydream and disconnect

  • Medication - reducing symptoms chemically

 

These are all good tools for creating the stable platform from which you can do the work that resolves the underlying causes: the memory fragments.

 

You don't forget what happened. It's still a bad memory. But you only remember it when you want to remember it. It's now just a memory and not an intrusive collection of fragments--you are far less likely to have a full-blown emotional/physical response if something causes you to recall it.

What is Memory Reconsolidation Therapy?

Neuroscientists call the mechanism of assembling traumatic memory fragments into memories "memory reconsolidation." There are two main evidence-based and field-tested techniques for initiating such alterations.

 

EMDR stands for "Eye Motion Desensitization and Restoration." Pioneered in the late 1980s by Francine Shapiro, EMDR is currently recognized as one of the most successful ways of reconsolidating traumatic memory fragments into long-term memories. The therapist asks you to track lateral movements with your eyes while recalling the traumatic experience. The eye movements allow you to be distanced from the fear so that cognitive memory of the event can be re-established without the crippling levels of fear or grief experienced at the time it happened. Results are immediate, although the benefits will continue to accrue as old, no-longer-needed, defensive behaviors are retired in the time that follows treatment.

 

Progressive Counting, a modification of the Counting Method, was developed in the early 2000s by Ricky Greenwald of the Trauma Institute of Northampton. The therapist counts aloud, to progressively higher numbers, as you mentally unfurl the traumatic experience safely in bite-sized pieces, minus the excessive fear and grief that accompanied the original experience. It is as effective as EMDR, but lesser known because it is newer. 

Therapy Before and After Memory Reconsolidation

Both EMDR and Progressive Counting are part of a phased approach to trauma resolution that starts with evaluation and stabilization (assuring basic needs are met, learning to avoid high-risk situations, etc.), followed by consolidation of gains (learning to live without your trauma) and other follow-up. That's why this works best for people who are already engaged in mental health counseling. Your counselor will help you prepare before, and then help you integrate your gains after treatment. And then you are done.

 

The results are long-lasting and quite likely permanent, although those studies are still in the works. There's no maintenance required to keep them that way. You might even terminate treatment for whatever it was that drove you to counseling in the first place.

Why Do It All at Once?

Memory reconsolidation treatment differs from the talk therapy you may have already experienced. There is no retelling of experience, no homework, and no need to circle back each week to see how you're doing. Once the excessive emotional charge is removed from a memory, you can move on to the next memory…and the next. And the next. Because of that, one full day of intensive treatment equals, roughly, two months of weekly appointments. 

 

Doing all of the work in days or weeks, rather than months or years, is a more likely path to completing all of the work. There's less chance of the "penicillin effect" in which treatment ends because you feel a little better—not because the underlying cause of your symptoms is gone. Plus, you can enjoy the benefits sooner.

Not everyone has the room in their lives to do the first five days in a row, so it's also possible to do one or two days at a time over a few weeks. The efficiency lies in the day format because the opening and closing parts only need doing at the start and the end, no matter how long the session is. That's what gobbles up time in trying to do this in traditional 50-minute appointments.

What to Expect

Consent and Control

Absolutely nothing in this process happens without your consent. The brake pedal is fully on your side of the car. There are no questions asked that you are required to answer. If you can't go there directly, we don't go there directly (there are techniques in which the intensity of the memory's emotions can be reduced without addressing the memory directly). And, perhaps best yet, you do not need to divulge the details of any intrusive memory in order for this process to work. You will be guided through the memory reconsolidation process, which happens almost entirely within your mind. But it's also very okay to talk about details, if you need to, once our safety structure has been established.

 

The Schedule

We generally start at 9 a.m. Monday and work through until 5 p.m., taking breaks at your discretion and an hour off for lunch (we have plenty of local cafes and grocery stores). We continue that way daily through Friday at 5 p.m., if need be. If you are traveling from afar (we can recommend local accommodations including inns, hotels, and Air Bnbs), that gives you the weekend to rest up, travel home, and/or spend some time exploring the Green Mountain State and nearby Western Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. There are plenty of opportunities for outdoor, cultural, and other local experiences. And, if you need more than five days of intensive treatment, we will schedule those days within the following weeks. 

 

How You Might Feel

This is hard work. You will quite likely be very tired at the end of a full day. And you will burn a bunch of calories, so don't be surprised if you feel a little more hungry than usual (it's a good idea to bring snacks/drinks with you each day). You also might feel less hungry. And that's about it. Many people report immediate relief from this treatment. The relief continues to build for a time after treatment as old behaviors are abandoned because you don't need them anymore. And new behaviors blossom that most often lead to greater satisfaction and success in navigating life.

Cost

$100 deposit to book. $1200 per day. First three days paid in advance. Daily after. For those who can't afford full price, there are a  limited number of sliding-scale slots allotted per year.

 

Cash, checks, HSA cards, or Venmo accepted. 

 

Although I can't accept health insurance as payment for intensive retreat format treatments (health insurance companies are still in the process of learning the benefits of intensive retreat format psychotherapy) many medical spending accounts will reimburse you for this work. Receipts are provided, if needed.