Reliving memories long after trauma. Why does it happen?

I just returned from a week’s trip to Lebanon to train participants in a Scripture-Engaged mental health-informed trauma healing program. It was a wonderful experience. I made new friends, heard important stories of hardship and God’s faithfulness. I ate good (no, great!) food, and saw some beautiful scenery. Now, as I try to get my body clock back on home time zone, I’m waking early. In those wee hours of the morning, many of these memories come without any seeming effort on my part. There are great ones–laughter, sweet times, a poignant story of pain and heartache, a story of courage–and the brief moments of terror in several taxi rides. Since we survived the taxi rides, these latter memories are no longer negative as much as they invoke a chuckle or two.

In a small way, I’m reliving and recalling memories. I can smell the smells. I can feel the tension of riding in the front seat of a taxi going 60 miles an hour on a city street or the driver’s attempt to squeeze between a barrier and a large truck at a high rate of speed with only inches to spare. I can feel it and see it. And I didn’t even try to recall either the good or the bad. They just appeared.

This is how traumatic memory works. You experience a trauma and later flashes of memory–painful, shocking, unwanted–appear after the subtlest of triggers. You do not merely remember it, you feel it. You taste it, as if it were happening again. They come in bits and pieces, flashes and images; rarely in a linear sequential fashion.

While most good and bad memories fade and are replaced by new and more salient experiences, some memories stay powerfully strong and consistently intrude into the present. Even when we tell ourselves, “We’re safe now. We are no longer in danger” or “You’re not a child anymore, you are grown up and don’t have to be afraid of being hit,” the memories and associated feelings keep coming. It is as if your logic and perceptions aren’t able to moderate the response.

Let me give you a little silly example. I once became violently ill  for 4 days after eating deli turkey. To this day I cringe and feel stomach pain when presented with deli turkey. That experience was more than 12 years ago. Yet still I react. I know that what is in front of me is not tainted but it doesn’t seem to matter to my stomach.  Sure, the reaction I have is minimal and faded compared to immediately after my illness. But it is not gone.

Why does this happen? What are the processes in play that keep us experiencing and reliving what may be old and distant–as if it were still present? What follows is brief and a relatively simplistic summary of two very complex processes. Use them to help you understand yourself or a friend and to increase your empathy for those trapped in such processes.

Memory and the Connected Self

Psychology focuses much of its work on the individual person–the self. However, the self never exists outside of social connections (or disconnections) with others. Our understanding of our self begins at birth with billions of interactions (smiles, frowns, words, touch, etc.) with others. As we develop and become aware of ourselves, we often have key experiences of success or failure that continue to shape our sense of self long into the future. Find someone with a powerful sense of failure and you will find someone who will struggle to interpret present success as indicative of who they are. Whether success or failure oriented, both outlooks form on the basis of how we perceive that others see us. It seems that shame and humiliation act as intensifiers making it hard to alter our sense of self even after corrective experiences. They turn me from “bad things happened to me” into “I am bad.”

Memory and the (dis)Connected Brain

In simplistic language, the brain is an amazingly connected and efficient organ firing constantly day and night. Memories are stored and accessed, intensified or eroded, and often altered through the firing of neurons. The efficient brain “learns” to access information quickly. Just as you no longer have to think to insert your key into a lock the right side up, you also no longer have to consciously recall a memory–it just happens. Because multiple hormones and structures in the brain are involved in memory formation, it stands to reason that ignoring a life-altering memory (and the full-bodied experience of it) is next to impossible. Structures like the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus are evaluating and communicating (or not) with high-level processing within the cortex even before you know it. Thus, a memory and its reaction is already well-underway before a person can think and critique such a memory.

So, are we doomed to be controlled by our past?

No. There is ample evidence that we can form new connections and minimize intrusive and unwanted memories. The brain is plastic. It is adaptable and changeable. And yet, we are not in the age of the MiB neuralyzer. God does not usually remove us from our histories or make them so distant they have no effect on us. Adaptation takes time and energy and rarely is so complete that the person no longer feels nothing when they recall a painful event (in fact, feeling nothing might be rather dangerous as it would be a denial of reality).

So, the next time you are beating yourself up for still struggling with the past (or are questioning why a loved one can’t move beyond a trauma), be gentle. Consider instead how you might develop a corrective response that accepts what has happened and gives opportunity for a new second response after the first automatic reaction.




Filed under Abuse, memory, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Uncategorized

16 responses to “Reliving memories long after trauma. Why does it happen?

  1. Tom

    Welcome back, Phil. Lebanon, at a time like this? What an amazing place to be? But onward – So, how is your characterization of “traumatic memory” different than any other emotionally charged memory? There’s not much here to disagree with, but it isn’t what van der Kolk and van der Hart and Herman and Freyd, etc. mean when they talk about “traumatic memory.”

    • Tom, does it have to be different (traumatic memory…emotionally charged memory)? I would think emotionally charged memory is on a continuum on the basis of the level of emotional charge.

      • Tom

        Phil, Exactly. So why call it “traumatic” memory?”

      • because it is memory formed in trauma and has the special issues of that (often fractured and disjointed in ways that memories formed outside of traumatic experiences do not). I think you need to defend why we shouldn’t use it.

      • Tom

        Okay. Here’s why. I think you’ve represented a general concept (memory) as a more specific category (traumatic memory) without telling the reader what they’re buying. But the concept of TM is flaky, contested and it comes with lots of empirically debatable baggage like fragmentation, repressed memories, dissociation, and complex trauma to explain why it needs to differentiated from normal memory. I was with you until, “this is how traumatic memory works.” And it wasn’t what you said. It was what you didn’t say. I’m okay with “repetitive intrusive memory,” if that’s what we’re talking about, but to call it traumatic memory is way too simplistic. Dan Rather would say it’s painting a skunk and calling it a cat.

  2. Fran

    Excellent Phil. Though there is nothing simple about traumatic memory, your article and illustrations give it an understandable context and a context with hope. Thanks. (and welcome back!)

  3. Robin

    How does this work with repressed memories?

    • Robin, I’m not sure I know what question you are asking. In addition, repressed memories as a definition can vary quite a bit so I’m not sure what you mean. I have clients who have never forgotten but not remembered for decades. Other clients don’t have memories for traumatic events that others (multiple solid sources) tell them did happen to them. Are these repressed memories or should we develop another term? Maybe a better question (or one that I feel I can answer) is to consider the question of whether a person could have physiological reactions to something that they cannot recall. Seems quite plausible if you believe that there are mental processes active below the surface of conscious thought.

      Feel free to elaborate, though this post is about the experience of having a repetitive intrusive memory and reaction even though now one is distant from that situation.

      • Robin

        Thanks for responding! I think I agree with your understanding of traumatic memories and how triggers can recall moments of time.
        My question stemmed mostly from this sentence: “Because multiple hormones and structures in the brain are involved in memory formation, it stands to reason that ignoring a life-altering memory (and the full-bodied experience of it) is next to impossible.”
        I was wondering if you believed in repressed memories (or whatever term is being used nowadays), which your above response seems to indicate that you do.
        I have only recently been introduced to the BASK model of dissociation (I’m reading The Long Journey Home, which you recommended at a seminar), which makes a lot of sense to me. We might not be able to FULLY remember a trauma, but we also can’t quite FULLY forget it either…

      • Tom

        Interesting… This is sort makes my point, Phil.

      • Tom

        Robin, BASK was first proposed by Bennett Braun – the guy from Chicago’s Rush-Presb who was sued in 1997 for malpractice ($10.5 million) and then lost his license. And now Heather D-G wants to rehabilitate it… God knows why? This is deeply troubling stuff. Be wise.

      • Tom, Please refrain from these types of attacks on others. Continue and I will block you. I have endeavored to allow your voice to be heard but I will not allow these kind of responses. You are violating the command “thou shalt not lie.” Failing to tell the whole truth about someone or using one piece of data to smear the rest of a person. You claim Braun developed BASK…Braun sued and loses license…thus BASK is suspect fails the smell test of truth. Truth is he has an MD license today. Truth is he was sued but that suit is not about BASK Nor does it do justice to all of the complex facts of the case against him (note: I am not support his practice in treating MPD!). If we play this game we can dismiss all of the false memory support groups who utilized Underwager, a person who supports pedophilia and misused data in court settings. Would this be fair? I think not. Should we dismiss all of Luther’s work because he believed ungodly things about Jewish people?

        A more proper response would have taken the content of BASK and engaged with that content in a critical thought process. That would have been beneficial. Instead you smeared Braun by focusing on salacious details and then you smeared Heather because she discusses it as well in her book. Shame on you. You know better and ought to have a desire to represent Christ in all that you do.

      • Tom

        Phil, It would be hard to find a more poignant example of a doctor behaving badly than Bennett Braun. Dude! He destroyed a family. His example ought to be a public reminder of what can go wrong in therapy. What? Is he somehow above criticism? And doesn’t it raise just a little itsy-bitsy red flag when someone rehabs his stuff? Is the Christian counseling community that thin-skinned? Actually, the fact that no one is asking questions makes me wonder if the Christian counseling community is able to hold itself accountable.

        But this has gotten a bit off-topic. I still would like to know why you need to differentiate traumatic memory from normal memory? I gave my reasons why it isn’t necessary. Your turn. And, since she asked, I’m also interested in your response to Robins question (2nd comment) about repressed memories.

    • Tom

      Robin, my answer is, “Everything.” All the major TM theorists consider repression part of the traumatic memory package. It was theorized by Freud and Janet both and continues to be an integral part of this debate. Read through McNally’s book “Remembering Trauma” for a good analysis of the question of reactions to things we can’t recall. Or the most recent book, just published by Julia Shaw, “The Memory Illusion.”

      Phil, I’m disappoint by your answer here. You know exactly what question Robbin is asking. Why are you playing this little game?

      • Tom, stop presenting your opinions as everyones. It is false to say that we all think repression is part of the traumatic memory package. Of the vast majority of recent APA publications about traumatic memory (listed in Psychinfo) very few have ANYTHING to do with repression. Stop painting everyone with the same brush. Your stubbornness in this area shows you accuse everyone the same way and judge them guilty until they pass your court of law. If a evangelical biblical scholar uses vocabulary widely used amongst unbelieving critical scholars, does that make them unbelieving? I think not. I suspect the same is in your own field of anthropology.

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