Understanding Traumatic Memories

Traumatic memories are not “normal” memories and do not behave like normal memories.  Understanding these differences and finding ways to communicate these differences to clients, is important early work that you can do in your own development as a therapist and in your work with each client. Talking about the brain requires the use of metaphor.  Here are some key differences between normal and traumatic memories:

Normal Memories Traumatic Memories
They are stored in the cortex alongside millions of other memories. They are stored in the limbic/emotional part of the brain.  Further, they are stored in special “containers” in the limbic brain that serve to isolate and insulate them.  But, these containers easily “leak.”
Often do not have a lot of “heat” attached to them.  They may be silly, embarrassing, or neutral.  Remembering them does not cause a crisis in the body.  Low brain stem response. They are the temperature of lava.  Accessing them causes either intense distress or intense detachment from the body.  Intense brain stem response.
They can change as you normally interact with them. Do not change as you normally interact with them.
You can eventually get perspective on them. You cannot get perspective on them, as long as they are stored and contained in the limbic brain.
The often do not have a lot of sensory information attached to them. Are often saturated with sensory memory that floods into the body.
Individually, they do not profoundly affect worldview and self-concept.  They can be part of a large collection of similar experiences that can affect worldview and self-concept. Individually, they profoundly affect worldview and self-concept.
They are usually not intrusive. They can seep out of their “containers” and can be overwhelmingly intrusive.
They can be accessed intentionally and any missing contextual information can be recreated that helps make sense of the memory in the context of its recall. Are often accessed in pieces and often without much contextual information.  Pieces of memory that were previously accessible can disappear, leaving holes in memory that cannot be recreated by context.  These missing memories can reappear at a later date with all the associated heat and sensory memory intact.  Or, important parts can disappear forever, leaving hot sensations on either side of the missing memory.
Can be relatively responsive to rational statements.  “I was just a silly kid then.” Are rarely responsive to calm rational statements.  Often do not respond to words at all.  They are stored deeper in the brain than language.

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