Category Archives: Anxiety

Unprocessed Trauma : Do Your Thoughts Feel ”Out Of Control?’

Childhood trauma, if it is severe enough, has a profoundly adverse effect on how we think and how we process information.

In order to explain why this happens, it is first helpful to recap how the brain is organized. In simple terms, we can split the brain into three parts: the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex. The functions of these three parts of the brain are as follows:

THE BRAIN STEM: The brain stem consists of the midbrain, pons, and medulla oblongata. It is the most primitive part of the brain and controls essential bodily functions such as swallowing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

THE LIMBIC SYSTEM: The limbic system is involved in emotion, motivation, memory, and learning. It also controls the brain’s ‘alarm system’ (i.e., its fight/flight response).

THE NEOCORTEX: The neocortex is involved in the brain’s higher functions, such as reasoning, language, and logic.

Now, regarding the above brain components, let’s compare and contrast how the brain processes information under normal circumstances with how it processes information related to traumatic experiences.

THE NORMAL WAY IN WHICH THE BRAIN PROCESSES INFORMATION:

Under normal circumstances, the brain receives information and processes it via the limbic system to determine its emotional content and then passes it on to the neocortex where it can be logically analyzed and reflected upon in order to produce a rational response.

THE WAY IN WHICH THE BRAIN PROCESSES INFORMATION RELATING TO TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES:

However, when the brain receives traumatic information, because it could potentially mean we are in danger, the brain needs to process it as quickly as possible so that we can respond with the utmost alacrity, thus improving our chances of avoiding harm. In these situations, then, when a lightening-quick response is called for, there is no time for the luxury of allowing the neocortex to leisurely analyze and reflect upon the traumatic/threatening information received until it can determine the appropriate response.

Instead, the brain takes emergency action and processes the traumatic information quickly via the brain stem and the limbic system, bypassing the neocortex and, thus, allowing an instant, reflexive reaction. A simple example of when the brain might process information in such a way would be that of a person out for a walk who sees what s/he (mistakenly) takes to be a snake in the grass (though it is, in fact, just a piece of rope). In such a circumstance, s/he is likely reflexively to flinch and immediately step-away. This happens because the limbic system, working on an emotional level, has detected possible danger (emotional response: FEAR) and activated the ‘fight/flight’ state.

It is only when the neocortex comes back online and the person can logically analyze the situation that s/he realizes that what s/he initially took to be a snake is, in fact, a harmless length of dark, green rope. To reiterate: the reason the neocortex does not take part in the initial assessment as to whether the snake-like object is dangerous or not is that it would take up too much time (after all, if it is a snake it could be poisonous and strike at any second); an immediate response is called for, working on the principle of ‘better safe than sorry.’

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE HAVE TO LIVE IN A STATE OF CONSTANT FEAR AND ANXIETY?

Of course, we can swiftly recover from a minor incident like the one just described above However, if we have existed in a situation (e.g., living with an unpredictably violent, alcoholic father when we were a child) whereby we lived in a perpetual state of fear and anxious uncertainty, the type of information processing just described above (involving mistaking a rope for a snake) becomes increasingly REINFORCED and ENTRENCHED.

Thus, we come perpetually to respond to stimuli via an analysis of information by the emotionally driven limbic system, bypassing the rational analysis that the neocortex would typically supply. This, in short, makes us highly vulnerable to behaving in ways that, objectively speaking, may look deeply IRRATIONAL.

Indeed, eventually, this form of emergency, instant, fear-driven information processing (sometimes referred to as the traumatic neurological response), instead of only operating very occasionally when needed, becomes the brain’s DEFAULT METHOD of information processing and habitual. And, because of this, the brain becomes stuck in a state of constant read alert, leading us to feel constantly on edge and under threat as well as to be continually prone to vastly over-reacting to even the most minor (objectively speaking) of stressors and our whole lives can feel as if they have been subsumed into a kind of living nightmare in which everything seems a threat and potential source of danger – it is as if we have lost control of our thought processes which, in a very real neurological sense, we have.

FRAGMENTARY, UNPROCESSED MEMORIES STORED IN THE SOMATOSENSORY PART OF THE BRAIN LEADING TO UNCONTROLLED THOUGHTS IN THE FORM OF FLASHBACKS, INTRUSIVE MEMORIES AND NIGHTMARES:

Traumatic experiences overwhelm our arousal system, which prevents them from being processed immediately and as a coherent whole. Instead, they are mentally absorbed in a fragmentary way and stored in the somatosensory part of the brain to be processed and made sense of at a later date. Such fragmented memories, therefore, remain unprocessed and unhealed.

It is these unprocessed, unhealed and fragmentary pieces of information stored in the somatosensory part of the brain that gives rise to uncontrolled thoughts which manifest themselves in the form of flashbacks, intrusive memories, obsessive ruminations, and nightmares; such psychological phenomena are likely to be triggered by any stimuli that even vaguely reminds us of our original traumatic experiences (often on an unconscious level) and, whilst deeply unpleasant, represent the brain’s attempt to process our unresolved experiences properly.

RESOURCE:

Meditation – Banish Unwanted Thoughts

 

eBook:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for further details.

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

 

 

 

Childhood Trauma Linked To Agoraphobia

The term agoraphobia derives from the Greek word ‘agora’ which translates as ‘open place’ or ‘market place’ so ‘agoraphobia’, in literal terms (as opposed to clinical terms) means fear of ‘open places’ or ‘fear of the market place.’

Agoraphobia is listed by DSM V (the Diagnostic and Statitical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition – sometimes referred to as the ‘psychiatrist’s bible’) as an anxiety disorder and, in order to be diagnosed as suffering from it, an individual must experience a ‘marked fear’ of two or more of the five following situations :

  • using public transport
  • being in enclosed spaces such as shops
  • standing in a queue or being in a crowd
  • being outside of one’s home by oneself

As a result of this fear, the individual who is suffering from agoraphobia either avoids such situations or endures them whilst experiencing significant distress ; the distress or avoidance are caused by a fear that if something goes wrong escape would be difficult or help may not be forthcoming if panic symptoms or other incapacitating or embarrassing symptoms occur.

POSSIBLE CAUSES OF AGORAPHOBIA LINKED TO CHILDHOOD

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

Research has found that certain types of childhood trauma increase an individual’s risk of developing agoraphobia such as the death of a parent or being sexually abused.

REJECTION AND LACK OF PARENTAL WARMTH :

Research conducted by Arrindell et al. compared in-patient agoraphobics with ‘normal’ controls. All the participants were given questionnaires about how they were parented and it was found that :

These findings were given added weight because of the fact they replicated previous research findings involving agoraphobic out-patients (as opposed to in-patients that were used in the research described above).

SEPARATION ANXIETY :

Gittelman and Klein, in a paper reviewing research into whether or not there exists a link between agoraphobia and separation anxiety found that there is evidence of such a link in females but not in males ; they concluded from this that it is possible that agoraphobia has different causes in females than it does in males.

Furthermore, a review of research literature carried out by Gwinnett Center for Counseling and Family Therapy found that there was a link between adult agoraphobia and separation-anxiety issues as a child.

OTHER POSSIBLE CAUSES OF AGORAPHOBIA

  • An imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain leading to an exaggerated stress-respone.
  • Impaired spatial awareness.

To read about other anxiety disorders which may be linked to childhood trauma, click here.

RESOURCES :

Overcoming Agoraphobia

Stop Panic Attacks

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

Childhood Trauma, Social Anxiety And The Spotlight Effect

I have written elsewhere on this website about how, if we experienced significant and protracted childhood trauma, we are at increased risk of developing social anxiety in adulthood. This is especially the case if we have been constantly criticized and denigrated during childhood by our parents / primary caretakers and we have internalized their rather less than flattering negative attitudes. Indeed, once such attitudes have been internalized our bad feelings about ourselves may become self-perpetuating and a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy and we may even develop intense feelings of self-hatred.

SOCIAL ANXIETY AND THE SPOTLIGHT EFFECT :

According to DSM-5 (Diagnostic And Statistical Manual OF Mental Disorders, 5th EDITION, also known, informally, as the psychiatrist’s bible), the symptoms of social anxiety include :

DSM-5 criteria for social anxiety disorder include:

  • fear and anxiety (which is intense and persistent) about specific social situations because of a belief that if one enters such a social situation others will judge one and one may be embarrassed and humiliated.
  • anxiety or distress that impairs daily functioning.
  • anxiety that is disproportionate to the situation.
  • avoidance of social situations that may trigger anxiety.
  • intense fear and anxiety within social situations that tests endurance.

The SPOTLIGHT EFFECT (Gilovich et al. 2000) refers to a psychological phenomenon whereby we are prone to believe that, in social situations, other people are paying us far more attention than they actually are.

Because of this, we are also liable to believe that we are being evaluated or judged far more than we actually are being (actually, mosr people are much too preoccupied with thinking about themselves and their own problems to be concerned about thinking about us).

The spotligh effect, then, is so-called because, especially if we are self-conscious, highly sensitive and lacking in self-confidence because of the way we have been treated in the past, in social situations we feel as if we are ‘in the spotlight’, whereas, as far as others are concerned, we are not (unless, of course, we happen to be a pop star in front of a massive crowd at Wembly Stadium which, to my profound regret, I never have been).

BARRY MANILOW :

On the subject of pop stars, in the 1990s an experiment (Gilovich) to do with the spotlight effect was conducted involving a group of random students from which one was, again randomly, selected.

This student was then asked to wear a ‘T-shirt with Barry Manilow’s face on it. Why Barry Manilow? Because in the 1990s he was considered very uncool.

Newly bedecked in his ‘Barry Manilow’ apparel, he was then required to mix with others who did not know he had been instructed to wear the potentially embarrassing garment rather than to have garbed himself out in it of his own volition.

After he had done this, he was asked to estimate how many of those with whom he had mixed had noticed his potentially embarrassing, new, popstar-themed casual wear. He estimated 50%. The actual figure was 25%.

WE ARE ALL THE ‘CENTER OF OUR OWN UNIVERSES’, BUT NOT THE ‘CENTRE OF THE UNIVERSES’ OF OTHERS.

Because we have no choice but to ‘live in our own heads’ each day and interpret the world from our own idiosyncratic point of view, a compelling, but entirely wrong, impression is created within our minds that we are the ‘center of the universe.’

CONCLUSION :

The feeling, then, that we are ‘in the spotlight’ in social aituations is merely an erroneous perception created by our own minds and it is useful for us to remember this next time we feel self-conscious in such situations.

And, anyway, we all secretly love Barry Manilow…don’t we??!!

RESOURCE :

OVERCOME SHYNESS AND SOCIAL ANXIETY | HYPNOSISDOWNLOADS CLICK HERE

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

A Week’s Neurofeedback Equivalent To Years Of Zen Meditation

We have seen from many other articles that I have published on this site that those who have suffered significant and protracted childhood trauma are more likely than average to suffer mental health problems in later life, including anxiety (click here to read my previously published article: Childhood Trauma And Its Link To Adult Anxiety).

We have also seen that one method that many find useful to reduce feelings of anxiety is meditation (for example, see my previously published article: The Brain, Neuroscience And Meditation).

ZEN MEDITATION, ALPHA WAVES AND NEUROFEEDBACK :

 

Above: Individual undergoing a neurofeedback / EEG biofeedback session using a computer program and brain sensors.

According to Buzsaki, Professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers University, Zen meditation needs to be undertaken for years until the person practising it is able to slow the frequency of the brain’s alpha waves and to spread the alpha oscillations more forward to the front of the brain ; slowing these brain waves have many beneficial effects including :

  • reducing fear
  • reducing ‘mind chatter’
  • increasing feelings of calm
  • reduce anxiety
  • reduce feelings of panic

However, Buzaki states that (as alluded to above) whilst it takes years of Zen meditation to optimally alter alpha wave brain activity, the same results can be obtained after a mere week’s training with neurofeedback.    

WHAT IS NEUROFEEDBACK?

Neurofeedback is sometimes also referred to as EEG biofeedback and is a form of technology that helps the individual to learn how to beneficially alter his / her brain waves and it works by operant conditioning.

It is based on the idea that dysregulation of the brain forms the basis of many emotional, cognitive and behavioral problems and, as such, this brain dysregulation needs to be corrected.

N.B. Neurofeedback should only be carried out under the supervision of an appropriately qualified and experienced person.

 

RELATED ARTICLE:

Childhood Trauma Leading To  An Over-dominant Brain Stem.

 

eBook :

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 91NsGlbzQdL.SR160240_BG243243243-2.jpg

Above eBook : How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain (And How These Effects Can Be Reversed). Click HERE  for further details.

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

 

How Parents’ Anxiety Levels And Behaviors Affect Their Child’s Anxiety

A study involving 98 pairs of mothers and infants (the infants were aged from 12 months to 14 months) was carried out to investigate how the level of the mother’s stress affected the level of the infant’s stress (as measured by the reactivity of their respective nervous systems).

METHOD :

The mothers were separated from their infants before being assigned to one of two groups. The two groups were as follows :

GROUP ONE : The RELAXATION group in which the mothers were helped to relax to increase parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) reactivity (the PNS helps us to be calm and relaxed by, for example, reducing heart rate and blood pressure).

GROUP TWO : The SRESS group in which mothers were required to undertake a stress-inducing task to increase sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reactivity which induces in us the ‘fight or flight’ state by, for example, increasing heart rate and breathing rate.

Afterwards, the mothers from both of the above groups were reunited with their infants in one of two ways :

!) Half the mothers from each group had their infant returned to their laps. The researchers referred to this as the ‘TOUCH CONDITION.’

and

2) Half the mothers from each group had their infant returned to a high chair next to them. The researchers referred to this as the ‘NON-TOUCH CONDITION.’

Following this, acitivity in the infants’ SNS and PNS was measured and compared to their baseline levels.

Article continues under image

RESULTS :

!) INFANTS RETURNED TO STRESSED MOTHERS :

Infants returned to the STRESSED mothers showed significantly increased SNS activity compared to infants returned to RELAXED mothers and this effect was greater in the infants returned to their mother’s laps (THE ‘TOUCH’ CONDITION) than in the infants returned to a high chair next to their mother (THE ‘NON-TOUCH’ CONDITION).

2) INFANTS RETURNED TO RELAXED MOTHERS :

Infants returned to the RELAXED mothers showed significantly increased ANS activity compared to infants returned to STRESSED mothers and this effect was greater in the infants returned to their mother’s laps (THE ‘TOUCH’ CONDITION) than in the infants returned to a high chair next to their mother (THE ‘NON-TOUCH’ CONDITION).

CONCLUSION :

The researchers inferred from these findings that :

  • feelings of stress can be transmitted from mothers to their infants, particularly through touch.
  • feelings of calm and relaxation can be transmitted from mothers to their infants, particularly through touch.

These findings confirm what most mothers know instinctively.

How Parents Can Help Their Children Manage Their Anxiety ;

Research carried out at the University Of Lisbon (2017) conducted an interview based study that involved parents being asked to describe what strategies they employ to help their children reduce their feelings of anxiety.

The information collected from the study allowed the researchers to identify seven strategies that were UNHELPFUL (and that could potentially intensify the child’s feelings of anxiety) and, also, three strategies that were HELPFUL (and that were likely to ameliorate the child’s feelings of anxiety). I outline all ten of these strategies (the seven ‘unhelpful’ and the three ‘helpful’) below :

UNHELPFUL STRATEGIES ;

  • Reinforcing depenedence or avoidance.
  • Over-involvement (including being over-protective and being excessively controlling).
  • Negativity (e.g. blaming, criticizing or punishing the child)
  • Helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Unrealistic Reassurance
  • Passivity (e.g. unresponsiveness to the child’s anxiety)

HELPFUL STRATEGIES :

  • Helping the child to problem solve (e.g. developing plans to deal with the cause of anxiety or to cope with the anxiety
  • Encouraging the child to be brave
  • Providing the child with emotional support

RESOURCE :

Overcome General Anxiety for Kids | Self Hypnosis Downloads. CLICK HERE.

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

Reducing Anxiety By Calming The Amygdala

We have seen from other articles published on this site that severe and protracted childhood trauma, resulting in the child being frequently subjected to extreme stress, can damage the development of the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is intimately involved in generating feelings of fear and anxiety.

Indeed, in individuals who have experienced such serious childhood trauma that they have gone on to develop complex posttraumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD), the amygdala has been found to be overactive ; this can result in the affected person feeling constantly ‘on edge. hypervigilant, fearful, and, as it were, stuck on ‘red-alert’ / in a state of ‘fight or flight,’ with accompanying unpleasant bodily sensations such as a racing heart, rapid and shallow breathing (sometimes referred to as ‘hyperventilation), tense muscles, an unsettled stomach and nausea. Indeed, it is these very bodily symptoms that feed back to the brain leading to the perception of being afraid.

ANXIETY, DEPRESSION AND THE AMYGDALA :

An overactive amygdala is not only associated with complex PTSD ; it has also been found to be associated with depressive and (as one, of course, would expect) anxiety disorders (e.g. Dannlowski et al., 2007).

THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND CALMING THE AMYGDALA :

Fortunately, another part of the brain, known as the prefrontal cortex (which is involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, rational, logical and abstract thought, speech, decision making, reappraisal of situations, active generative visualization and moderating social behavior) can be harnessed to inhibit the overactivity of the amygdala, thus calming it to allow symptoms of anxiety to dissipate and dissolve away.

PREFRONTAL CORTEX DEPRIVED OF OXYGEN WHEN WE’RE IN FIGHT / FLIGHT MODE :

If we suffer from PTSD or complex-PTSD we are prone to experience extreme fear and anxiety when it is not, objectively speaking, warranted. And, when we become fearful we can become locked into the fight / flight state, causing our body’s oxygen to be diverted to our muscles (particularly in out arms and legs) so that we may fight or flee more effectively. However, this reduces the amount of oxygen available to the prefrontal cortex which, in turn, means that we are limited in our ability to think rationally so that we are unable to reassure ourselves that the danger we perceive is not objectively justified, and, therefore, we are also unable to inhibit our amygdala’s overactivity.

MAKING SURE THE PREFONTAL CORTEX RECEIVES SUFFICIENT OXYGEN TO FUNCTION OPTIMALLY :

In this fearful state, we need to control our breathing so that sufficient oxygen can reach the prefrontal cortex to allow it to function optimally ; we can achieve this by breathing in a relaxed and slow manner, and, when exhaling, breath out slowly from the stomach so that the diaphragm moves upwards to increase the pressure on the lungs and heart to expel air. This type of breathing beneficially affects the part of the brain stem known as the medulla which, in turn, sends signals along the vagus nerve, leading to increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and decreased activity of the sympathetic nervous system : in combination, this produces feelings of relaxation and ameliorates feelings of stress and anxiety.

VISUALIZATION : THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX AND VISUALIZATION :

To calm the amygdala further, we can also take advantage of the prefrontal cortex’s ability to visualization (see above) and undertake sessions of relaxing, guided imagery either with a therapist or using self-hypnosis.

RESOURCES :

Improve Visualization | Self Hypnosis Downloads

Learn Deep Breathing Relaxation Techniques Rapidly | Self Hypnosis Downloads

eBook :


ABOVE EBOOK AVAILABLE FOR IMMEDIATE DOWNLOAD FROM AMAZON. CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER DETAILS.

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

Traumatic Memory : Flashbacks, Fragments, Nightmares And Repression

Traumatic Memories

Remembering traumatic events is in some ways beneficial. For example, it allows us to review the experience and learn from it. Also, by replaying the event/s, its/their emotional charge is diminished.

However, sometimes the process breaks down and the memories remain powerful and frightening. Sometimes they seem to appear at random, and at other times they can be TRIGGERED by a particular event such as a film with a scene that shows a person suffering from a similar trauma to that suffered by the person watching it.

Traumatic memories can manifest themselves in any of the 3 ways listed below:

1) FLASHBACKS

These are often intense, vivid and frightening. They can be difficult to control, especially at night.

Sometimes a flashback may be very detailed, but at other times it may be a more nebulous ‘sense’ of the trauma.

Sometimes the person experiencing the flashback feels that they are going mad or are about to completely lose control, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE.

 

2) INTRUSIVE MEMORIES

These are more likely to occur when the mind is not occupied. They are more a recollection of the event rather than a reliving of it. When they do intrude, they can be painful. Often, the more we try to banish them from memory the more tenaciously they maintain their grip.

3) NIGHTMARES

These can replay the traumatic events in a similar way to how they originally happened or occur as distorted REPRESENTATIONS of the event.

HOW RELIABLE ARE MEMORIES OF TRAUMATIC EVENTS?

There used to be a concern that some memories of trauma may be false memories. However, the latest research suggests that memories of trauma tend to be quite accurate but may be distorted or embellished.

However, false memories CAN occasionally occur. This is most likely to happen when someone we trust, such as a therapist, keeps suggesting some trauma (eg sexual abuse) must have happened.

It is important to remember, though, that parents or carers will sometimes DENY or DOWNPLAY and MINIMIZE our traumatic experiences due to a sense of their own guilt. In other words, they may claim our traumatic memories are false when in fact they are not.

REPRESSION :

Very traumatic memories may sometimes be REPRESSED (buried in the unconscious with no conscious access to them). In other words, we may forget that a trauma has happened/ this is a defence mechanism. Sometimes the buried memories can be brought back into consciousness (eg through psychotherapy) so that the brain may be allowed to process and work through the memories allowing a recovery process to get underway.

Trauma, Memory And The Brain :

New memories are stored in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus. However, not all memories that enter the hippocampus are stored by the brain permanently.

Only some are transferred to the cerebral cortex for long-term storage; the rest fade away. The more important the memory, and, in particular, the more intense the emotions connected to the memory are, the more likely it is to be permanently stored. This process is called memory consolidation.

When an event occurs that is very threatening or damaging to us, the stress of this causes stress hormones ADRENALIN and CORTISOL to be released into the brain.

The effect of these stress hormones is to strengthen the memory of this threatening or damaging event.

The stress hormones released into the brain (in particular, the amygdala) also ensure the memory of the negative event becomes strongly associated with the emotions (such as fear and terror) that it originally evoked.

 

So, for example, if we are viciously attacked and maimed by a savage and demented Rottweiler, cortisol and adrenaline will be released into our brain to ensure that the memory is indelibly stored. These same stress hormones will also ensure that the emotions we felt at the time of the attack, such as fear and terror, also become strongly associated with the memory of our unfortunate encounter with the less than friendly canine miscreant.

This way of storing such memories evolved for the survival value it confers on our genes.

Also, when extremely traumatic events occur, the hippocampus can become so excessively flooded by stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that it incurs damage.

This damage can then alter the way that the traumatic event is stored. Because of this, the memory may become:

– fragmented

– ‘foggy’ / ‘blurry’

– distorted

– inaccessible to conscious awareness

Furthermore, the memory of the extremely traumatic event may become highly invasive – especially when the person in possession of the memory is reminded of the traumatic event (even tangentially) – and constantly break through into consciousness wholly unbidden, re-triggering the release of excessive amounts of stress hormones into the brain ; this can lead to:

– flashbacks

– nightmares

obsessive rumination about the traumatic event

TRAUMA AND NON-DECLARATIVE MEMORY :

Our long-term memory can be divided into :

1. Declarative Memory (sometimes called explicit memory or narrative memory) – it is the part of our memory that we use for the conscious recall of facts or events.

Declarative memory depends upon language in order to organize, store and retrieve the information that it holds.

2. Non-Declarative Memory (sometimes called implicit memory, procedural memory or sensorimotor memory) – it is this part of our memory that allows us to automatically retrieve information connected to something we have learned without conscious deliberation.

For example, we can get on a bike and ride it without having to concentrate on exactly how we’re doing it or go over in our minds the steps involved in how we learned to do it; indeed, we need not even remember when or how when learned to do it (I certainly don’t) – nevertheless, the necessary ‘know-how’ has been unconsciously, permanently retained.

Non-declarative memory, unlike declarative memory, does not depend upon language for the organization, storage and retrieval of information. Because of this, non-declarative memories are frequently very hard indeed to describe in words (try explaining all the tiny body and muscle adjustments necessary to maintain balance whilst riding a bicycle – yet the memory of exactly how to do this has been faithfully, unconsciously stored, courtesy of your non-declarative memory!).

TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES ARE FREQUENTLY STORED AS NON-DECLARATIVE MEMORIES :

Due to their utterly overwhelming nature, we often can’t completely and linguistically, mentally process our traumatic experiences which prevent them from being stored in declarative memory; when this happens, the traumatic experiences are instead stored in our non-declarative memory.

THE FRAGMENTARY NATURE OF INCOMPLETELY PROCESSED TRAUMATIC MEMORIES :

The incompletely processed traumatic memories stored in non-declarative memory tend to be very fragmentary in nature. As we have seen, too, they are not stored in linguistic form but, instead, often in the form of :

– bodily sensations (e.g. muscular tension, increased heart rate, hyperventilation)

– images (e.g. these might come to us in nightmares or intrusively and unheralded during our waking hours as a result, often, of unconscious triggers – see below)

– emotions (e.g. extreme anger or fear)

Also, our unconscious, non-declarative memories may express themselves through chronic, seemingly inexplicable symptoms and behaviours.

WHY WE FIND IT HARD TO ARTICULATE OUR TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES :

Because the memory of our trauma has not been properly processed at the linguistic level we are likely to find ourselves unable to articulate our traumatic experiences in any coherent manner. (Click here to read my article on how we find it difficult to talk about our trauma).

TRIGGERS :

Bodily sensations, images, emotions, symptoms and behaviours linked to our non-declarative memories of our original, childhood trauma may be triggered whenever anything even remotely reminds us of this trauma.

In this way, we may find ourselves re-enacting aspects of our original trauma in our everyday lives months, years or, even (in the absence of effective therapy), decades after the actual experience of our childhood trauma is over.

How to Cope with Difficult Memories :

Flashbacks and Intrusive memories can be very painful and emotionally distressing, and, according to Ehlers et al. (2010), three main factors need to be considered when aiming to eliminate, or, at least, reduce the negative impact of, these kinds of memory. They identified the three factors as follows :

  1. Becoming aware of what is triggering the memories
  2. Understanding how the individual is interpreting the memories
  3. Identifying and understanding behavioural and cognitive responses to the memories

With this in mind, let’s look at strategies which we can implement to help manage our problem memories:

1) Flashbacks: strategies which are helpful in managing them:

There are three main ways which can help us to achieve this:

a) PLANNED AVOIDANCE
b) ‘GROUNDING’ TECHNIQUES (which act as DISTRACTORS)
c) THOROUGH REVIEW OF THE FLASHBACK (this technique is connected to the psychological technique known as DESENSITISATION – by repeatedly exposing oneself to the feared object, or, in this case, memory, gradually weakens its negative psychological impact)

 

PLANNED AVOIDANCE:

This technique involves avoiding TRIGGERS that, by experience, we know trigger our traumatic memories. This can provide valuable ‘breathing space’ until we feel ready to try to process and make sense of our memories, usually with the help of a psychotherapist. In order to use this technique, it is necessary, of course, to, first, spend some time thinking about what our personal triggers are.

GROUNDING TECHNIQUES:

This technique is based upon DISTRACTION; the rationale behind it is that it is impossible to focus on two different things at the same time. So, the idea of the technique is to strongly focus on something neutral, or, better still, something pleasant – the brain, when we do this, will be unable to focus on the memory which was giving rise to distress and emotional pain.

It does not really matter what we choose to focus on in order to distract us – it might even be, say, the chair in which we sit: what is its colour, its shape, its texture and feel to the touch, the material from which it is made…etc…etc..? I know this sounds rather silly, but, if we concentrate on it like this for a while, almost as if we were carrying out a forensic examination (think Poirot or Sherlock Holmes), it can act as a powerful, temporary distractor when we feel, potentially, we could be overwhelmed by our thoughts and memories.

We can implement the grounding technique by using what are known as ‘GROUNDING OBJECTS’ – this term refers to physical objects (ideally, easily transportable, so, a full-sized model of, say, Stompy the Elephant, for instance, might not be such a great idea). But, seriously, it could be something as simple as a shell from the sea-side – it can really be anything, just so long as it evokes a feeling of safety and comfort. When feeling distressed, the object can be held and looked at with the intense focus referred to above in the description of the grounding technique. Also, as Proust helpfully pointed out, aromas can be very evocative – something relaxing such as lavender could be used.

As well as using grounding objects, we can also use what are known as ‘GROUNDING IMAGES’. This involves thinking of a place in which we feel safe, secure and comforted. It is a good idea to make the image as intense and detailed as possible (although people’s ability to visualize varies considerably – I’m hopeless at visualizing). If you are able to visualize it in such a way as to allow you to mentally interact with it (e.g. imagine walking around in the location you are imagining) so much the better. To get to the safe imaginary place in your mind, it is also useful to have what is known as a ‘LINKING IMAGE’; again, as this is an imaginary way of linking (getting) to the ‘location’ it can be anything; for example, when feeling distressed, you could imagine yourself ‘floating away’ to your ‘safe place’. Once mentally ‘located’ in the safe place, it is again helpful to imagine then ‘place’ as intensely as possible, using our old friend the GROUNDING TECHNIQUE, so that it almost feels you are really there, where NOTHING CAN HARM YOU.

It is also possible to employ the assistance of what are referred to as “GROUNDING PHRASES‘. These can be very simple, such as “I am strong enough to deal with this, I always get through it’, or, even more simply, ‘I’m OK’. We can try to bring these phrases to mind and repeat them to ourselves when we are feeling distressed.

There is even a technique known as ‘GROUNDING POSITIONS’. This, very simply, refers to altering our body’s position to produce a psychological benefit; for some, this might be standing up straight with shoulders back to produce a feeling of greater confidence; for others, it might be curling up in bed in embryo position to produce a feeling of greater safety and security. Such techniques, whilst, possibly, sounding vaguely silly, can be surprisingly effective.

THOROUGH REVIEW OF THE FLASHBACK :

This technique is connected to the psychological technique known as DESENSITISATION – by repeatedly exposing oneself to the feared object, or, in this case, memory, gradually weakens its negative psychological impact.

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

RELATED POSTS :

TYPES OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA IN COMPLEX PTSD

FIVE TYPES OF AMNESIA LINKED TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND MEMORY – WHY SOME REMEMBER AND OTHERS FORGET.

CAN ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ BE UNCOVERED BY HYPNOSIS?

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