Neuroscience – Traumatic Memory

Memory is such a tricky thing in general. When you add trauma into the mix and it becomes even more challenging.

People struggle with the memories they do have just as much as the things they don’t remember. That said, that is an extremely general statement as there are a few different kinds of memories.

The first and perhaps easiest are “explicit” memories.  These memories are full of facts, details, events, stories heard, phone numbers, quotes and even lyrics to favourite songs.

The second kind of memories are “implicit” memories. These are evoked by sights, sounds and smells.

On the good side, they can be wonderful – like the smell of baking cookies, your first puppy and the melody of a beloved lullaby. On the more challenging side however is when these same senses i.e.: the sound of a door closing, the scent of a certain aftershave can elicit fear, panic or even terror.

For a person who has been traumatized as a child, they might re-experience the foreboding sensations of cold sweat, shaking with fear etc.,  Despite how it may seem, this actually has very little to do with the verbal pattern of thinking “This reminds me of being hit”.

Traumatic memory is created and held much differently than every day memories.  If for example a child was abused, their brain believes ” I’ve been hurt and I am going to be hurt again, I better be on guard for who is going to hurt me next”.   Those beliefs are conscious thoughts that become stored in the brain.

Fast forward to when when something traumatizing happens. In these moments, the brain becomes overwhelmed and the thalamus shuts down, so the entire picture of what happened cannot be formed in the brain.  So instead of forming specific memories, traumatized people remember images, sounds and sensations without context.  Those very sensations from the past, become triggers in the present that activates highly elevated emotional states.

That part of being present is the current challenge – to build tolerance to whatever the sensations are instead of living in the story that explains the behaviours.  It’s extremely important to remember that a key piece to healing is addressing the way the “memories” within the body continue to respond and behave in the present, while believing the experience is happening right now.

Trauma physically changes people, there is no doubt or question. They feel differently and experience sensations differently.  These sensations are internal and the only way to address the is by staying present with the sensations and not focus on talking about the “feelings”, as that engages another part of the brain, removing the attention and focus from building tolerance and resilience to move through the experience, to shift it into something different.

Building resilience and tolerance may seem like a huge mountain to climb, a never ending journey, but I promise that it doesn’t have to be. Adding an element of time into the “body memory” equation, may help.  Without going into more detail – in the easiest, fastest terms for this post, by adding a sense of time it may allow the person to be able to “sit” with the sensations and let them go away on their own, over time – that they don’t stop or get stuck and they do end.  Adding an awareness of time, may make the “experiencing” become more tolerable.

I realize this concept of body memory / implicit memory may be a new piece of information, but I do invite you to be curious about it. Even if just for a moment…. until that moment of curiosity has passed…


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