Tag Archives: Flashbacks

How Does Trauma Affect Memory?

childhood trauma and traumatic memories

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.

Traumatic_memories

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 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. As I suggested in PART 1, this is a defense 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 in 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.

intrusive_memories

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.

Non-declarative memory

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 their utterly overwhelming nature, we often can’t completely and linguistically, mentally process our traumatic experiences which prevents 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.

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).

What Is The Difference Between Flashbacks And Intrusive Memories?

If, as adults, we are suffering from complex posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of our childhood experiences we may, in the absence of effective therapy, be very prone to experiencing both distressing intrusive memories and frightening flashbacks. But what is the actual difference between intrusive memories and flashbacks? I briefly explain this difference below:

INTRUSIVE MEMORIES :

Intrusive memories enter conscious awareness against the individual’s will (often, the person experiencing them will try to block them out‘) and are very similar to the original traumatic event that is being recalled ; however, the individual having these memories is aware they they are, indeed, just that – i.e. memories / recollections – and that the incident being recalled is NOT actually happening in the ‘here and now.’ However, they can still be extremely distressing and may produce unpleasant physiological symptoms such as rapid, shallow breathing (hyperventilation) and increased heart rate.

FLASHBACKS :

In contrast, when an individual has a flashback s/he re-experiences the traumatic event as if it IS actually happening in the present. FLASHBACKS seem so real because sensory information (which can include sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile information) that has been stored in memory (albeit in an only partially processed and fragmented way) can be replayed in the mind extremely vividly ; to the person having the flashback, it is as if s/he is reliving aspects / fragments of the original trauma all over again and this can be quite terrifying.

3 STAGES :

Meichenbaum (1994), who alikened flashbacks to ‘waking nightmares‘, identified three typical stages that the flashback experience can be broken down into. The three stages are as follows :

  • TRIGGER
  • SURFACING OF MEMORIES
  • AFTERMATH

Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn :

STAGE 1  – TRIGGER :

Triggers can include anything perceived by the five senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch), thoughts, events, incidents etc that have something in common with the original, traumatic event. Triggers may remind one of such events on either a conscious or unconscious level. If the flashback is initiated by a sub-conscious / unconscious trigger then, disturbingly, the flashback may seem to ‘come out of nowhere.’

STAGE 2 – SURFACING OF MEMORIES :

This is the stage during which the (potentially terrifying) experience of ‘reliving’ the original trauma in one’s mind occurs. This stage can include the illusion of ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, or, even, ‘smelling’, ‘tasting’ or ‘physically feeling’ things that occurred at the time of the original trauma. Indeed, as already alluded to, it feels to the individual as if s/he is going through the trauma all over again, in the PRESENT, even though his/her rational mind may be aware, on another level, that this is illogical ; the confusion that comes about as a result can torment person experiencing the flashback further by inducing in him/her the fear that s/he is ‘going mad.’

Frequently, too, this stage involves considerably increased physiological arousal (racing heart, sweating etc.).

Furthermore, during this second phase one may become very emotionally dysregulated (e.g. one may become deeply distressed or extremely angry).

STAGE 3AFTERMATH :

After the experience of reliving the original trauma has passed, physiological arousal (such as increased heart rate etc.) may still be high but gradually abates. Because one enters a dissociative state during the flashback, once it is over the individual is likely to feel highly confused and disoriented.

Despite the highly disturbing nature of flashbacks, it is important to remember that they are the brain’s way of trying to process / ‘make sense of’ one’s, as yet not fully processed, traumatic memories and ‘heal itself’ from the deep, psychic wound incurred from the experiencing of the original trauma.

FOR COMPREHENSIVE INFORMATION ABOUT HOW TO COPE WITH FLASHBACKS, YOU MAY WISH TO CLICK ON THIS LINK : Mental-Health-Matters.com (dealing with flashbacks).

 

RESOURCES :

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

Failure Of Information Processing At Core Of PTSD

failure of information processing at core of PTSD

Research suggests (for examples, see below) that traumatic memories are not stored in the normal way (this theory was initially proposed by the psychologist and philosopher Pierre Janet) but non-linguistically as feelings / emotions and sensations (e.g. images, sounds, smells). This means that they cannot be properly articulated nor integrated into the individual’s personal narrative (story) in a meaningful way. This is why people frequently find trauma  extremely difficult to talk about.

Also, traumatic memories are stored in a fragmentary way (as opposed to in a way that allows them to form a coherent whole) and remain unmodified over time. 

Another feature of traumatic memories, according to Pierre Janet, is that they frequently cannot be remembered at will but are state-dependent (i.e. can only be recalled – in the form of flashbacks, for example – when the individual is in a similar state of consciousness to the one s/he was experiencing at the time of the trauma).

So, as we can see from the above, traumatic memories are not processed in the normal way and it is this lack of normal information processing that lies at the core of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One main theory related to this is that they (i.e. the traumatic memories) are prevented from being properly processed by the EXTREME LEVEL OF AROUSAL the individual feels whilst experiencing the trauma.

Supporting Evidence :

Research (Kolk and Ducey) into flashbacks (a central feature of PTSD) using neuroimaging has revealed that, when these flashbacks occur :

  • there is increased activity in areas of the right hemisphere which are involved with emotional processing
  • there is increased activity in the right visual cortex

These two findings support the theory that traumatic memories (in this case, flashbacks) are processed / stored in the form of emotions and sensations (in the case of the above research visual sensations).

Furthermore, Rauch et al. (1995) conducted research showing that individuals experiencing flashbacks simultaneously experienced a decrease in activity in the part of the brain, located in the left hemisphere, called Broca’s area (a brain region involved with language) ; this finding supports the theory that traumatic memories are not stored in linguistic form.

Implications For Therapy :

The above supports the notion that effective therapy for PTSD should involve the individual afflicted by it being helped by the therapist to properly process traumatic memories so that they may be safely integrated into the person’s personal narrative.

RESOURCE :

NHS Advice On Treatments For PTSD – click here.

eBooks :

emotional abuse book   childhood trauma damages brain ebook

Above eBooks now available on Amazon for instant download. Click here for further information.

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

 

Trauma Triggers : Definition And Examples

 trauma triggers

Responding and Adjusting to the Effects of Trauma : Five Stages

childhood-trauma-fact-sheet

One of the world’s leading experts on the effects of traumatic experience is the psychologist Mardi Horowitz, and it is he who proposed the five stage model of how we respond and adjust to traumatic experience. The five stages that Horowitz describes are as follows :

HOROWITZ’S FIVE STAGE MODEL OF HOW WE RESPOND AND ADJUST TO TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE :

A) Outcry

B) Numbness and denial

C) Intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic experience

D) Working through the traumatic experience

E) Completion

imagesLQ18EG4Q

Let’s look at each of these five stages in turn :

A) Outcry : this first stage occurs in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic experience – it involves a disorganized and confused mental state in which the individual is likely to feel overwhelmed and disorientated.

B) Numbness and denial : this second stage is essentially self-protective – the brain attempts to banish thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic experience from conscious awareness leading to a state of numbness and denial. This can include psychological states known as ‘depersonalization’ (this is a sense of being cut off from, or somehow separate from, one’s real self) and ‘derealization’ (this is the sensation of being cut off from reality ; it generates the feeling the trauma was not real – as if it had just happened in a film or play : the individual finds it hard to accept the traumatic event/s did actually occur).

C) Intrusive re-experiencing : however, the above protective stage can only endure for so long until the memories start to powerfully re-assert themselves. It should also be noted that, paradoxically, the more an individual actively attempts to suppress the painful memories, the more forceful they will tend to become – this is a process called ‘rebound’ (click here for one of my articles related to this phenomenon).

Because this stage involves re-experiencing the traumatic event/s, it can be very distressing ; to reduce the power of the memories and the psychological pain that they bring, it is necessary to start to process them.

People often vascillate between stages 2 (B) and 3 (C) and it is often only possible to start assimilating what has happened into long-term memory in a slow and gradual manner, bit by bit. This assimilation process is stage 4 (D) – Horowitz referred to it as ‘working through’.

D) Working through : during this stage, which involves coming to terms with what occurred, making sense of it, understanding its meaning and implications and integrating the traumatic experiences into long-term memory, both denial and intrusive memories, together with the pain associated with the trauma, start to diminish

E) Finally, completion occurs – the previously intrusive memories become fully integrated into long-term memory and begin to lose their power to cause emotional distress.

GETTING STUCK AT A PARTICULAR STAGE OF RECOVERY :

However, sometimes the recovering individual may become stuck at a particular stage, not infrequently at stage 3 (C) – the ‘intrusive memories’ stage ; this may involve disturbing thoughts, images, flashbacks and nightmares. In such a case, appropriate therapy may be essential.

Above eBook now available for immediate download from Amazon. CLICK HERE for details.

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

How to Cope with Difficult Memories, Part One.

intrusive_memories
https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/2013/04/20/exciting-early-research-findings-on-the-medication-propranolol-a-beta-blocker-effectiveness-of-treating-symptoms-of-trauma/

In a previous post, I wrote about traumatic memories and talked about how psychologists have divided them into two types:

1) Flashbacks
2) Intrusive memories

Such 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 behavioral 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)

intrusive_memories

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.

I will continue looking at how we can help ourselves cope with difficult memories in part TWO, starting with ‘c’ above: a THOROUGH REVIEW OF FLASHBACKS.

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

Childhood Trauma Recovery