Walking the Prisoner Out Metaphor in Flash Therapy and EMDR Therapy

This episode focuses on different types of distress that may appear in trauma work and explores the types of distress that are most productive to metabolize.

Transformational trauma therapies typically involve transforming traumatic memories into more “normal” memories.  Out of all the prison cells of the limbic brain, we select one memory and change how this memory is experienced by the client from that point on.  Transforming a single memory changes at least slightly how the right now selves experience themselves and how the selves experience the world.  Transforming trauma transforms to some degree… everything.

In many transformational trauma therapies, at least part of what we are doing is transforming the distress encoded in the memory.  There is distress in almost any individual traumatic memory. However, that’s not the only distress that may be present.  One question that the therapist may want to ask is: what distress is productive to try to metabolize and what might be a goose chase.  Cleary, we want to metabolize the distress that is in the memory, but if too much memory comes into awareness or if memory comes with too much intensity, the system—which is designed for protection and containment—may have strong defenses against that much memory content showing up.

Prisoner scenario #1

  • Warden goes to a specific jail cell, unlocks it, and slowly walks that prisoner down the corridor
  • They walk one step at a time
  • As long as no one panics everything is fine
  • The warden, if desired, can wall the prisoner straight out of the prison

Prisoner scenario #2

  • Warden goes to a specific jail cell, unlocks it, and they start walking down the hallway
  • The prisoner starts running
  • The system is designed to protect against that
  • Now, the prisoner has to deal with everything that stinks about his current situation AND now has to deal with the defenses that resulted from moving too quickly

How this looks in Flash Therapy

  • Overactivation or opening too many adjacent memories causes problems with containment
  • Problems with body activation
  • Problems experiencing the calm scene as a disconfirming experience

How this looks in EMDR Therapy

  • When we are working with clients with complex trauma, we are often working with clients with a very narrow window of tolerance… even after extensive resource development
  • Clients with complex trauma have well-developed and automatic survival strategies that kick in when too much distress is activated in too short of a time
  • Noticing the distress or shut down from the defenses against the trauma is not as productive as noticing the content in the actual memory.
  • We need that content to come at a digestible rate.  If it doesn’t we have a goose chase.  And you client is the goose and the chaser.
  • Other forms of distress that don’t tend to be productive in either EMDR of Flash: existential questions or agendas.  Example: divorce memory turns into “Why do all my relationships not work out?”  “Why does everyone I have ever loved hurt me?”  “Will I every find love?”

Strategies to more effectively “walk a memory out” with clients with complex trauma


  • Work at the intersection of what is productive and tolerable
  • Use the Shapiro-endorsed Video Tape Approach instead of going into the memory at the worst part
  • Don’t lose track of the fact that we have selected the starting memory for a reason.  Anticipate that with clients with complex trauma, when the body feels a certain way, adjacent memories will want to come.  It’s not a good idea to open your little tea party to a whole part of town, just because everything there has the same body-feel.

In the Four Blinks Version of Flash:

  • Be careful not to overactive. Most problems come from overactivation.  If the video of the memory is playing when you open the door on the memory, the prisoner is running.  If you are trying to make sense of the memory, the prisoner is running.  If you have distress in your body from the activation, the prisoner is running.  If multiple memories are connecting, the prisoner is running.

In summary, I wanted to introduce the idea that not all forms of distress are equally productive and that it’s the distress in the memory that we want to metabolize and not the distress generated by protective responses against the memory content.

The Folger’s Coffee Can Full of Black Powder metaphor.

Many times, the most efficient ways to process memories is to take a single step/spoon full at a time.  Complete that step/bite.  Take the next.

Understanding How Traumatic Information is Routed and Processed in the Four Blinks Version of Flash

To do any Flash approach well, it is probably helpful to have some working theory about what is happening and how the information is being routed or processed.

This episode assumes you are familiar with the Four Blinks Version of Flash and how it is different conceptually and practically from other versions.  If you’re not familiar, check out the script.  To remind you, after developing the hardware of this approach in Steps One and Two, we identify the memory in Step Three and immediately contain the general idea of it.  We then cycle between going in and out of our calm scene in Step Four and lightly activating the next micro-slice of the memory in Step Five.  When the client can’t find any distress in the memory, we cycle through each frame of the video of the memory in Step Six.

Flash approaches have the potential to transform how we understand healing… how we make hot implicitly stored information absolutely normal memory information.  In this version of Flash, we’re trying to process the information as information, not as distress.  It’s a remarkable concept, the idea of separating difficult information from the distress inside it… and as we’ll talk about… what really makes recovery difficult isn’t always the distressful information in the memory, but our defenses against too much of that information coming into awareness at a rate or an intensity beyond our capacity to digest.

It is important to identify the specific memory that we are working on:

  • We want to confirm that it is an individual memory
  • We want to identify it, but not activate it
  • We recognize that identifying it might cause some activation (which is inevitable)
  • Which is why we pivot to the container quickly.  Identifying the memory is essential, but identifying it and containing it are part of the same process… part of the same movement.  After the “general idea” of the memory is contained, we do least two rounds in the calm scene to make sure the client can find their way into the calm scene/process (and to distract from any residual distress lingering from identifying the memory).

In this version of Flash, we never contain the whole memory after Step Three, only the microslice of it that comes up on each activation in Step Five.

Immediately after Step Three we move to the calm scene/calm process and do two thirty second rounds there with blinks every five seconds, not to actually process the memory, but to confirm that the calm scene is accessible and inducing an experience and to further pivot away from any broader activation that may started.  Again, no reprocessing of the memory happens in the first several rounds after containing the “general idea” of the memory.

After Step Four, when we check the memory in Step Five, we are micro-activating it, ready to receive the information in the memory as information, and prepared to direct it away from the body and into the container.

Important point: our goal is not to active defenses against the memory content, not to snap the mouse-trap of the amygdala.  Preparation includes an agreement with the client not to go-there-go there.  I jokingly describe this as like Catholic teen dating.  We have an agreement to kind-of, but not go there-go there.  There is distress in the memory content, but if we activate too much of the memory content then we have to also deal with our defenses against that memory content (which are often much more distressing and may play an active role in pushing a client out of their window of tolerance).  Metaphor: Imagine a prison warden who walks to a particular cell and unlocks it with a key.  He comes out and they walk, step by step, down the prison hall.  They pass prison guards, who nod at the warden.  Step by step, they can walk straight out of jail into sunshine.  Now, rewind.  Imagine the same Warden and the prisoner starts running. The defenses built into the system are activated against that.  The whole system is designed for containment.  Our goal is to walk this memory out, one directed step at a time.  We do that, in part, by activating the memory one tiny piece at a time.  If the video plays, the prisoner is running.  If other memories are connecting, the prisoner is running.  If the client is noticing distress, the prisoner is running. If the client is trying to make sense of anything, the prisoner is running.  

After we container whatever comes up in that micro-slice of the memory, we pivot to the calm scene and process.

The blinks every five seconds in the calm scene “break up” the 30 second exposure to the calm scene into six five second exposures… presenting an exposure, exposure, exposure, exposure, exposure, and exposure to the disconfirming information of the calm scene.

The information that is being fully or partially processed while we are in the calm scene is the microslice of the memory that we just put into the container.  If that microslice had a distress of 6/10 (and we’re not asking… don’t ask… but if you were to ask…), after the calm scene, it is likely to have a lower distress.  If it now has a 3/10, that 3/10 will show up in subsequent openings of the door on the memory.  In short, whatever residual is left in working memory from that microslice that we put into the container, gets put back into the room of the memory.  And if it doesn’t come up when we open the door to the memory in subsequent checks, it will come up when we walk through the video of the memory in Step Six.

So we do this lightly activate/container (Step Five) and calm/scene blinks (Step Four) cycle over and over until the client can’t find any distress from looking outside of the door of the memory.  Then in Step Six, we ask the client to walk through each frame of the memory and let me know on one hand when you find any distress on any channel and immediately container with the other. Metaphorically, now that the client has cleaned out the things that really want to jump out of the room of the memory, we now walk through the room and look under the cushions and behind the couch.  Don’t be surprised if some distressful pieces are hiding somewhere in Step Six, within a round or two in Step Four they are effortlessly metabolized.

You’re probably noticing a pattern here: Step Three, identify the memory and contain it.  Step Five, identify the microslice and contain it.  Step Six, identify any distress on any channel in any frame of the memory and immediately contain it. It’s hot potato, hot potato, hot potato, all day long in the Four Blinks Version of Flash.  Hold the distress more than a moment and we have a problem.  And what we are doing, over and over, is the client is identifying the distressing memory content (what goes into the container, goes into working memory, just a tiny bit of it).  We are identifying (in the sense that the client is seeing the content), but not attaching to the memory content.

What is Different About the Four Blinks Version of Flash

There are multiple conceptualizations of Flash and I am not claiming that the version I am advocating is more effective, more right, or even more sensible than other versions.  It’s just the version that makes the most sense to me and works really well for my severely traumatized clients.  And as versions change—and they have–it is possible that they can change so much that the working mechanisms that underlie them may change.  And this is why I wanted to make very, very, clear how to do one specific version of Flash, identify a clear method and methodology that may allow us to do that version repeatedly, consistently, and globally.

And since my version is getting some attention, there is a need to take both a broader view and to see how my specific version fits into that broader view.

What’s the same?

  • Light activation
  • Calm scene, calm focus
  • Blinks in the calm scene, calm focus, calm process
  • Light activation (pivot away from activation), calm information and blinks
  • And that cycle until the distress is zero.

Why develop a distinct version of Flash, when there is already a conceptualization articulated by its developer?

  • Multiple and changing versions
    • This is probably inevitable.  However, Flash needs to be made concrete, repeatable, itemized, scriptable–with clear steps or phases.
  • Flash need to be simplified.  Its core qualities need to be defined and what isn’t essential need to be removed: is bilateral stimulation important, is deep breathing, is counting, or is it important that the client narrate to the therapist about the calm scene?  How can we strip what we know about Flash down to its central elements?
  • What its central elements are depends on how you conceptualize what is actually happening in this approach.  Much of the Flash world seems to think that the blinks disrupt attention and focus on the calm scene (putting the working the working memory mechanism more in the camp of EMDR 2.0 than Bruce Ecker’s memory reconsolidation work).
  • Plus, Phil Manfield is chasing a concept that he calls subliminal activation that seems to uproot Flash from both memory reconsolidation and disrupting memory camps.  This is evidenced in his APP, which is built around his subliminal activation hypothesis and bears little resemblance to any of the prior versions of Flash he has developed and promoted.
  • My concern is that subliminal activation goes against many of the things that we actually know about both memory reconsolidation and disrupting working memory hypothesis.  In short, Manfield’s Flash keeps evolving in ways that are making it difficult to nail down.  I want to nail it down and make it concrete enough to become a practice.  I want to nail down what is effective in one specific version of Flash, so that it’s repeatable, reliable, predictable, consultable, and when used it looks like the work of a talented and practiced therapist… rather than the work of a magician pulling imaginary rabbits out of unseen hats.  There is something here that is real, reliable, reproducable, and revolutionary.  I am deeply appreciative of Dr. Manfield’s work and contributions.  I’m just trying to carve out a way to do this and train this that is stable enough to grow.
  • So, how we conceptualize Flash matters.  Because that is how it will be explained and justified.  If this is a way that people can heal, we need to be clear about the model of action.  The Four Blinks Version of Flash puts all of its chips on memory reconsolidation being the primary mechanism.  Memory reconsolidation is going to be how we will make sense of the transformative trauma therapies of the 21st century.  It just is.  It’s simple.  It’s intuitive.  And, anytime you have ever healed, or ever gotten past anything, this is how you have done it.  It doesn’t need magic.  It doesn’t need less distress.  How we actually heal is incredibly simple.  We get exposure to disconfirming information in ways that are tolerable to our systems. That’s it.  And, Flash does this in the Four Blinks Approach very well.
  • If this is a way that people can heal, then we need to think and practice big.  Continuing to conceptualize this as a technique is problematic.  It needs to be conceptualized as a stand-alone approach to healing.  It can’t simply be EMDR’s awkward little sister.
  • It this is a way that humans can heal, then this has to become a psychotherapy.  It has to.  Every other transformative trauma intervention that started as a technique has become an approach to psychotherapy or is in the process of becoming one.  We have a tiny, tiny, handful of ways that humans can heal that are reliable, tolerable, safe, and fast.  We don’t have time to think too small.  Or somehow make this a competitor to an approach that we already do.
  • And, that psychotherapy that we make from Flash needs to be accessible.  Continuing to require advanced training in another evidenced based trauma therapy to even get trained in Flash is a problem.  That’s why I’ve been informally training as many people as I can for the last six months for free.  Everything I have ever written or said about Flash is public domain and not a word of it is copyrighted… including these words right here.
  • We have remarkably few ways for people to reliably, safely, and rapidly heal.  We don’t have time to ration healing pathways that have been with us for as long as we have been human.  This pathway exists.  It is in your genes.  It is redundantly twisted into every cell.  The fact that it has taken us this long to discover it has more to say about our cultural blindness to trauma than the simplicity of this approach. If you are already a trauma focused therapist, I don’t have to explain this to you.  If this is a way that humans can heal from the longest and most pervasive public health crisis in the history of humanity, nobody owns that.  We should be teaching this to our parents and we should be teaching this to our children.
  • I’m incredibly hopeful that what we learn from Flash will eventually inform the first trauma therapy that can go global, including in parts of the world where there isn’t a person with a masters degree for hundreds of miles.

What is different?

Steps that are not essential to Flash from a memory reconsolidation perspective are removed. There is no bilateral, counting, breathing, or extended client talking in the Four Blinks Version. Steps that support memory reconsolidation are enhanced.  It understands that we are working with a system of parts and provides guidance about how to do this well in coordination with a system of parts.

It does this in six simple to understand and simple to teach steps.

  • Step One: Develop, test, and practice an explicit container.  When clients struggle to visualize, helpful interventions to outsource the visualization of the container are provided.
  • Step Two: Develop and test the calm scene/focus/process.  When clients struggle to visualize, helpful interventions to outsource the calm scene/focus/or process are provide.
  • Step Three: Identify the memory and immediately container it.
    • We are careful about when and how we check the SUDs, since that requires that we handle more of the memory than is ideal in an approach where we are trying not to activate.
  • Step Four: Engage the calm scene and go in and out of it through a series of guided blinks. In the Four Blinks Version of Flash, there are:
    • Many options for the calm scene or process
    • Consistent with memory reconsolidation, the blinks produce a large number of disconfirming experiences as the active ingredient, rather than somehow disrupting working memory.
  • Step Five: Lightly activate the memory and container that activation.  Go back to step four until the distress is zero.  In the Four Blinks Version of Flash, there are:
    • Concrete strategies to assess for and container/vacuum body distress
    • Concrete strategies to practice light activation when clients overly activate
    • Built into the Four Blinks Version are instructions for dealing with flashbacks
  • Step Six: Walk through the memory and pick up the debris (just like in Ricky Greenwald version).  Room metaphor.

In short, the Four Blinks Version of Flash shrinks Flash.  It puts a fence around just one way to do it, so that we can understand how to do that well, how to train it well, and how to provide clear guidance when something goes sideways.

Flash lets us do memory reconsolidation work quickly and with little preparation.  It lets us rescue the self from the past safely.

Flash is Also for the Healthy


Why Your Healthiest Clients Need to Know About Flash Too

  • Flash emerged about five years ago as a technique to work on lava hot memories in EMDR before complex trauma clients were resourced enough to handle memories of that intensity.
  • Process that “as low as it will go” in Flash (we’ve since learned that memories don’t fully resolve in Flash most often because we’re not doing Flash well, rather than there being some limitation or defect in Flash itself).

What is Flash?

  • Pact with the client not to activate.
  • Lightly activate.  If clients struggle with this, we help them.
  • Disengage, distract, or container the activation (depending on the version)
  • Focus on something pleasant, then go in and out of that focus through a series of guided blinks (these guided blinks turn one exposure to the calm scene/process every thirty seconds into six exposures into the calm scene every 30 seconds).
  • Go back, lightly activate, pivot away from the activation, calm scene/blinks.

What Flash Teaches Us About Memory Reconsolidation

  • Micro-activation is enough.  Minimizes defenses.  Memories clear one slice, one microslice, at a time.  (This is probably true of all transformative trauma therapies).
  • The sheer number of exposures is more important than the quality or the duration of the calm scene if we want to resolve a memory quickly.
  • The mismatch between the calm scene and the schema information in the memory can be general… we do not need to construct directly disconfirming information.  Food can work for safety, pets can work for sexual abuse memories, etc.
  • When memories resolve in any transformational psychotherapy, they all resolve the same way.  Much of what is in the AIP model is true for any model that is transformative:
    • decrease in distress
    • transformation in beliefs about the self and the world
    • effortless recall
    • transformation of sense of age, time, perspective, including appropriate attribution of responsibility

What Flash Teaches Humans about Healing

  • That healing individual memories is easy.
  • Healing individual memories (including the memories associated with having a really difficult day) is easy.
  • Flash is a great way to process difficult experiences generally.
  • This is a powerful resource for life.
  • This is a powerful resource for parenting.
  • This is a powerful resource if you ever intend to live close to someone, because you will have elbow collisions.
  • This is a powerful resource if you have ongoing insecurities.
  • This resource is 100% effective self-administered.  Most other transformative trauma therapies are not.

Humans Have Been Trying to Heal Forever

  • And this is one way to do it that is incredibly Western-compatible.
  • It works even for the lazy and the non-introspective.
  • It’s easy to self-administer and it doesn’t just recontainer trauma the way every other resource does, it gives humans a high probability of resolving what is wrong with us… what has always been wrong with us.
  • If this is a way to heal…
  • If humans can heal in this way… this way that has been with us for as long as we have been human… probably longer.
  • Then, this is our common heritage and birthright.
  • Nobody owns that.
  • If this is one way that humans can heal themselves, then we should say that clearly and repeatedly.
  • We should teach people how to do this.
  • We should teach them clearly and repeatedly.
  • You have been trying to heal for as long as you have been human.  You have been doing it… I have been doing it… over and over in ways that simply don’t work.
  • This way works.
  • That’s what I’ve been saying clearly and repeatedly.
  • Let me show you.
  • Then, let me teach you how to teach this.