Tag Archives: Nightmares

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:

FLASHBACKS
INTRUSIVE MEMORIES
NIGHTMARES

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).

 

 

 

 

Overcoming Nightmares And Hallucinations With ‘Paradoxical Intention.’

bpd and neuroimaging

paradoxical intention

Childhood Trauma And Its Link To Adult, Psychiatric Disorders :

We have seen in many other articles that I have published on this site that there is a link between childhood trauma and the later development of a whole array of psychiatric disorders in adulthood (for example, see my article on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study – sometimes referred to as the ACE Study).

Such psychiatric disorders include major depression, anxiety, alcoholism, borderline personality disorder (BPD), complex posttraumatic stress disorder (cPTSD) and psychosis (including schizophrenia).

All of these conditions may include the symptoms of nightmares and/or hallucinations (borderline personality disorder can sometimes involve brief psychotic episodes, as can depression).

Nightmares, Hallucinations And Trauma-Based Memories :

When nightmares and hallucinations are linked to psychiatric disorders which, in turn, are linked to childhood trauma, it is quite possible that the content of those nightmares and / or hallucinations are founded, at least in part, upon TRAUMA – BASED MEMORIES.

Paradoxical Intention :

paradoxical intention

Of course, the content of nightmares and hallucinations is frequently highly disturbing and distressing – I have had nightmares of such violence that they have, on more than one occasion, caused me to fall out of bed. Frequently, too, I have thrashed about so vigorously in my sleep that I have knocked lamps, clocks, overflowing ashtrays, radios and half-finished cups of tea off my bedside table (although never all at once, albeit small consolation) – however, one possible way to reduce their intensity, or, even, overcome them may, counter-intuitively, according to psychodynamic theory, be facilitated by a process known as PARADOXICAL INTENTION.

Paradoxical intention is a concept first described by Dr Viktor Frankl, the famous psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who founded Logotherapy, based on the idea that psychological symptoms can be made worse by tying too hard to fight them, summed up by the pithy maxim, ‘What you resist persists.’

So, applying the idea of paradoxical intention to the treatment of nightmares and hallucinations involves a trained psychotherapist encouraging the client to view his/her nightmares and /or hallucinations from a completely different perspective,  i.e. rather than seeing the hallucinations / nightmares as something purely destructive and to be feared, the client is encouraged, instead, to try to see these phenomena as helpful clues (no matter how bizarre and nonsensical they may appear to be on the surface) which can be analyzed and interpreted for salient meanings (whether literal or symbolic), thus helping to expose, and shed light upon, possible trauma-based memories that underpin the individual’s psychiatric condition.

In this way, the client can be both empowered, and, under the care of an appropriately trained psychotherapist, can also be sensitively and compassionately helped to understand, where appropriate, the deep roots of his/her particular psychological difficulties, which may prove to be an effective first step towards ameliorating them.

Above eBook now available on Amazon for instant download. Click here for further information or to view other titles.

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

Afraid Of Going To Sleep?

Are You Afraid Of Going To Sleep?

My so-called ‘sleep’ (it’s stretching things to dignify it with that word, actually, even in inverted commas), in the past, has been appalling : it would take me at least three hours to lose consciousness, and, even then, I would wake, with a violent, shuddering start, ridiculously frequently throughout the night, sometimes shouting, or even screaming, and, not infrequently, drenched in sweat, making my pillow so damp that it would be necessary to turn it over (then, as the night progressed tortuously slowly, use the second pillow, then have to turn that one over…)

My intensely vivid nightmares would be filled with the most horrific violence, of which I was invariably the recipient – I would be sawn in half, chopped up with a machete, or otherwise maimed and mutilated.

Insomnia_nightmares_afraid to go to sleep

I still get up at about 4.30 am as by then I am fully awake and there is no hope of even lightly dozing (as you may well know, early morning waking, coupled with the inability to fall back to sleep, is a classic hallmark of depression).

Once I’m up, I feel I need to take a long rest in order to recover from my nocturnal ordeal : in other words, my ‘sleep’ necessitates a (tormentingly elusive) sleep.

When things were at their worst, in fact, I would dread going to bed, almost to the point of physical nausea.

If we have developed post traumatic stress disorder as a result of our painful childhood experiences it is very likely that we will, without effective therapy, suffer insomnia and nightmares as adults, similar to that described above.

This is because PTSD leads to a feeling of constantly being on ‘red alert’ / on the look out for danger. Clearly, this is hardly a state of mind conducive to a blissful night’s sleep.

If we have terrifying nightmares, as alluded to above, we may become very fearful of going to sleep and try to stay awake for as long as possible, in a pitiful attempt to postpone our descent into our night-time Hades.

Of course, this can only work in the very short term.

If we constantly put off going to bed and, when we finally do go to bed, our sleep is disrupted by our nightmares and, perhaps, too, frequent waking, we will quickly become chronically exhausted (mentally, physically and emotionally) and, essentially, sleep deprived.

This can lead to:

– an exacerbation of existing depression

– high levels of irritability / proneness to outbursts of rage in response to even (objectively speaking) minor frustrations

– an increase in anxiety levels

If the sleep deprivation becomes severe, then, in addition to the above, we may:

– hallucinate

– become increasingly irrational / develop impaired judgment

 

The internet is awash with information about action to take to reduce insomnia and nightmares and to repeat it all here would be superfluous. However, two tips that I found useful were :

1) Imagine self in a safe and secure place when intending to fall asleep

2) If really can’t fall asleep try to relax in a different room for as long as necessary

Afraid Of Going To Sleep Because Of Nightmares?

These can imitate past traumas we have suffered or symbolically represent them. When waking from a nightmare and feeling frightened, it is useful for us to try to ‘self-sooth’ by, for example, telling ourselves:

– ‘I am safe now’

– ‘It’s over – it’s not happening now, it’s in the past.’

– ‘It’s just my imagination – it’s not real.’

Finally, of course, ‘trying hard’ to fall asleep and getting angry and frustrated about our inability to do so is counter-productive. Paradoxically, trying hard to stay awake when tired is more likely to induce sleep.

Resources:

‘Stop recurring nightmares’ hypnosis download : click here

Get back to sleep quickly’ hypnosis download : click here

 

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