The Flash technique: Latest developments, research and misunderstandings
I last wrote about Flash in the Winter 2021 edition of EMDR Therapy Quarterly. In that article, I emphasised that Flash is not trying to be a replacement for EMDR, but that it is a therapeutic intervention that can be used at different stages within the EMDR standard protocol to reduce the intensity of traumatic memories. I also mentioned how the method of utilising Flash has been simplified including the use of a ‘conversational’ engaging focus which makes Flash simpler and safer to use with clients. However, since then, I still notice misunderstandings about what Flash is, how it is applied and where it fits into the EMDR therapy process.
Flash can only be used during the preparation phase of EMDR
It is worth reflecting on how we traditionally think of stabilisation interventions as something akin to emotional first aid and providing emotional regulation. When clients bring very traumatic memories, traditional stabilisation techniques such as calm place, LightStream and breathwork are less impactful when a client is triggered. What they really need is for the memory to become less distressing (or ‘further away’) which is what Flash can achieve with little prior work in a very safe way. But this IS processing and therefore the question would surely arise that Flash doesn’t only have to be used during the preparation phase, but also as part of a comprehensive strategy for processing trauma.
So, I teach that when we use Flash during the early stages of therapy (which you could call ‘preparation’, but it is certainly happening during history taking) the aim isn’t to reduce the SUD to zero, but to reduce the ‘trauma load’ in a progressive way at this stage that doesn’t leave the client distressed. One of the benefits of Flash is that timeframes can be targeted, clients don’t have to talk, think or feel the traumatic memories, and that multiple memories can be targeted simultaneously. All of which is great ‘preparation’ and ‘stabilisation’ for heavily traumatised clients.
When it comes to the main ‘body’ of the work, where specific memories are targeted to address the presenting problem that the client is bringing, Flash can again be used if the distress levels are high. It is also possible to switch into EMDR processing when appropriate when SUD are lower, which bring the benefits of greater associative effects and clearing out all channels of association. All of this results in clients being less ‘drained’ at the end of processing, and less risk of abreaction or dissociation during the processing. As I say on my trainings, Flash is “less risky than a poor history take”, which can of course be very triggering and destabilising if handled insensitively.
Flash can only be used with targets with no feeder memories
This misunderstanding seems to have arisen simply because in Phil Manfield’s training when asking for volunteers, he asks them to bring a stand-alone memory that they do not think has a feeder memory. This request has been misunderstood to mean that Flash cannot be used on targets with feeder memories! Ironically, during a live demonstration in a recent webinar, the volunteer suspected a feeder memory which they did not disclose, and when the client ‘checked in’ with that feeder during Flash, they were surprised that the distress levels had reduced in the feeder memory, even though they had not specifically targeted the memory. This happened because all that is required for Flash to work is that a client brings a target into their working memory, and we have discovered that Flash can work on several memories simultaneously, which is what happened in this demonstration. The skill of Flash is determining what is required to ‘bring a target into working memory’. For a SUD 7 target (for example) thinking about it will be fine. For a SUD 10 (or above) target, asking SUD will be triggering and too much, and so a much briefer ‘touching of the memory’ is required.
Finally, although the steps involved in using Flash are very simple, and there is really only one variable (the target), I am still surprised about how Flash is not used appropriately, or precisely, especially with intense traumatic memories. The transfer of information about how to do Flash by word of mouth can almost be like Chinese whispers, where meaning and emphasis get changed, even for something as simple as the Flash technique.
Also worthy of note is to mention that there are now 12 published papers about Flash, including an open access RCT referenced below (Yasar et al., 2022). All of these papers can be downloaded from Phil Manfield’s Flash website. So even though we do not know exactly how memory reconsolidation is occurring during Flash, the evidence base for its effectiveness is building.
Yasar, A. B., Konuk, E., Kavakci, O., Uygun, E., Gundogmus, I., Taygar, A. S., & Uludag, E. (2022). A Randomized-Controlled Trial of EMDR Flash Technique on Traumatic Symptoms, Depression, Anxiety, Stress, and Life of Quality With Individuals Who Have Experienced a Traffic Accident. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 845481. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.845481