Explaining Traumatic Memories With The Linen Cupboard Metaphor

THE PROCESSING OF NORMAL MEMORIES: Normal memories that have been fully processed have a temporal context that enables us to remember when, or roughly when, they happened. In other words, the memories have what is sometimes figuratively referred to as a ‘date stamp.’ The ‘date stamp’ is attached to the memory the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. The hippocampus can be regarded as the catalyst for long-term memory and, once the information making up the memory (which may be visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory) is processed, its memory traces are encoded in various locations in the cortex in the normal way and are accessible to conscious recall so can be reconstructed. And, to reiterate, because such memories, processed in the normal way, are ‘date-stamped, when we recall them we will be aware that the information recalled comes from the past.   TRAUMATIC MEMORIES ARE PROCESSED DIFFERENTLY FROM NORMAL MEMORIES: However, traumatic memories are processed and stored differently. When an event causes us extreme stress, two parts of the brain involved in the processing and storage of memory are affected. These are:

  • the hippocampus (already referred to above)
  • the amygdala

  In extremely stressful/traumatic situations, the hippocampus’s ability to carry out its function of putting the memories it is processing into a temporal context diminishes (or, in other words, under high levels of stress and arousal, the hippocampus is increasingly less likely to date-stamp the memories it is endeavoring to process). However, another part of the brain, known as the amygdala and involved in processing sensory memories (the perception of sounds, sights, taste, smell, and touch) actually becomes more active under the conditions of extreme stress that constitute traumatic experiences.


The amygdala, then, becomes hyperactive in extremely stressful situations and may store and encode traumatic memories in vivid detail but not within a temporal context (i.e. it does NOT date-stamp the memories it holds) These traumatic memories can be triggered by any sensory information (sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch)  that we later perceive that reminds us (either consciously or unconsciously) of the traumatic experiences that underlie these not properly processed memories. And, because the memories are not ‘date-stamped, when we recall them it can feel like what we are experiencing is not a memory from the past, but is happening to us in the ‘here and now.’ This kind of experience, particularly associated with PTSD and complex PTSD, is commonly referred to as a ‘flashback’


In order to explain what needs to be done in order to alleviate the suffering of those of us who are adversely affected by traumatic memories and associated flashbacks, it is useful to refer to what has become known as the ‘linen cupboard metaphor.’ The metaphor has been used to elucidate how traumatic memories can be improperly stored in the brains of people with PTSD/complex PTSD.

The metaphor describes such memories as being stored rather like items in a disorganized and untidy linen cupboard. Whenever the person with PTSD/complex PTSD brushes by the cupboard, the cupboard door bursts open and items fall out – ‘brushing past the cupboard’ metaphorically stands for being reminded of the trauma to which the memories are attached (this can occur on a conscious or unconscious level) and the ‘items falling out’ metaphorically represent intrusive memories and flashbacks related to the original traumatic experience. All the items in the cupboard represent all the disorganized and improperly stored memories relating to the original trauma (sights, sounds, smells, feelings, etc), but when the cupboard is ‘brushed against’ only some will fall out (i.e. the person will only experience fragmentary, sensory memories or, to put it informally, ‘bits and pieces of the original traumatic experience.

As already stated, to the individual affected it will feel like the trauma is happening ‘in the here and now’, forcing him/her to re-experience the fear and terror associated with when the trauma was first experienced (remember, this is because the memories lack a ‘date-stamp). The person affected in this way will often respond by quickly cramming the items that have fallen out back into the cupboard and closing the door (this metaphorically represents an attempt to avoid and suppress the intrusive memories). However, this approach is ineffective as the cupboard will remain in the same state of disarray it was in before, disorganized and barely containing its contents, so that the next time it is brushed against, the same thing will happen (i.e. the person will experience another flood of disturbing, fragmentary memories.  


A BETTER APPROACH TO DEALING WITH INTRUSIVE MEMORIES/FLASHBACKS (REORGANIZING THE ‘LINEN CUPBOARD.’ Extending the metaphor, the contents of the linen cupboard need to be taken out of the cupboard, examined, and reorganized so that they are put back in the correct part of the cupboard. This is a metaphor for bringing the memories gently into conscious awareness without trying to avoid them or banish them (this needs to be done with an appropriately qualified and trauma-informed therapist whom one trusts and feels comfortable with, in a safe environment) examining and processing them so that they can be stored and integrated into the right part of the brain (i.e. processed and stored like ‘normal’ memories and integrated into one’s life story so that they can be recalled in a way which is less psychologically painful than previously and no longer need to be desperately avoided, denied and repressed.

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