Disturbing Memories – Why They can Remain Unprocessed

The human brain is able to process most memories without difficulty. If, however, we have experienced particularly disturbing events during our childhood, it is possible that certain memories connected to such events have not yet been properly processed by the brain. Distressing memories which remain unprocessed can give rise to a number of most unpleasant symptoms; these may include, for example, anger, fear, terror or panic (the types of symptoms experienced by individuals will be strongly connected to the type of experiences connected to the unprocessed, distressing memories).

A leading theory is that, under normal circumstances, memories are processed during sleep – such processing involves neural connections being made (so that the memory becomes integrated with other memories), irrelevant detail being discarded, and appropriate learning taking place.

However, sometimes, if a memory is extremely distressing, it overwhelms the brain, preventing it from smoothly integrating the memory alongside other memories. Such distressing memories, in this way, can REMAIN UNPROCESSED, for years or decades, and, as a result, have a profoundly negative effect on how we think, feel and act if we do not seek out and undergo appropriate therapy.

In this circumstance, the distressing, unprocessed memory gets stored with associated unpleasant physical sensations and negative emotions. These unpleasant physical sensations and negative emotions can, in turn, be easily triggered by seemingly unconnected life events. However, the crucial word here is ‘SEEMINGLY’; this is because, UNCONSCIOUSLY, the life event reminds the individual of the events connected to the unprocessed memory.

In this way, for those of us who have unprocessed, distressing memories from our childhoods, our reactions to certain events in our adult lives may seem, on the surface, to be disproportionate, or, even, grossly disproportionate. This is because the events have, on an unconscious level, triggered how we felt in the past (during our childhoods) when the original traumatic experiences connected to the unprocessed memories occurred. This can lead, at times of acute stress, to a phenomenon known as age-regression.

How traumatic an event is to an individual, and the subsequent chances the memory connected to the traumatic event will not be properly processed, is influenced by a number of factors; these include the period of time over which the individual is exposed to the traumatic events, genetic predisposition and how the individual PERCEIVES the event.


According to Williams, Ph.D., when painful, traumatic memories resurface it can be helpful to reflect on them and to try to consider them from different perspectives and writing down answers to questions such as: 

  • Why did the event happen?
  • What we wish had happened instead?
  • How did what happened make us feel about ourselves and others

Once this has been accomplished, Williams suggests we should then take a break until our emotions have calmed down we can reconsider what we wrote down in response to the above questions either on our own or with another appropriate person. We can then try to reevaluate what happened to us in childhood from our present, adult perspective.

This entire process can then be repeated several times and each time we revisit the questions listed above we can add increasing detail to our previous answers as we remember it.

Another technique that can beneficially alter the perspective from which we view past trauma is known as REFRAMING (see my previously published article:  REFRAMING THE PAST: HOW TO REFRAME TRAUMATIC MEMORIES.


One therapy that has (relatively recently) emerged to treat people suffering from the ill effects of traumatic, unprocessed memories is EMDR therapy, which many have found most effective. 

By helping the individual process the traumatic memories, EMDR can help alleviate psychiatric conditions connected with the previously unprocessed memory. These include :

– depression

– panic

– anxiety

– dysfunctional attachments (relationship problems)

– anger


– complex PTSD

– borderline personality disorder (BPD)

– sleep disruption/nightmares/night terrors

– addictions

– eating disorders






David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


Monnica T Williams Ph.D. Overcoming the Pain of Childhood Abuse and Neglect. Psychology Today. 2013

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