Traumatic memory is a wound that distorts everything. The brain, also a victim of those memories caused by suffering, in turn influences the way we think, feel and relate. These past prisons compromise our current quality of life to the point of giving shape to debilitating states such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Speaking of memory means referring to an entity as mysterious as it is contradictory. Sometimes, we would like to remember some moments of our life in more detail to relive them once again. On other occasions, we will give anything to forget some events of our past, to which dark and suffering-filled spaces are linked.
In some cases it is the brain itself that blocks or distorts these painful events, leaving us suspended in a state where it is very difficult to manage or deal with them. Traumatic memory “works” in another way than working memory, explicit memory, implicit or procedural memory.
Traumatic memory mediates brain processes and even alters various organic processes, thus causing the well-known psychosomatic disorders. This is certainly a delicate subject, but equally interesting.
What is traumatic memory?
Memories of traumatic events have characteristics that distinguish them from common memories (Kihlstrom, 1996). Through certain mechanisms they make pain chronic, increase the feeling of fear and stress; therefore they influence brain activity.
Peter Levine, a physician and psychologist expert in traumatic processes, highlights an interesting aspect. In his book Trauma and Memory he reveals that traumatic emotional memories force us to create repetitive psychological and behavioral patterns.
Fear, the need to escape, repeated mental images, anguish… These are all mechanisms that trap us in a circle of perennial suffering caused by traumatic memory. Let’s see, however, what other characteristics define it.
What causes a traumatic memory?
To understand traumatic memory we must become aware of a very simple aspect: not everyone processes events in the same way. In other words, we may have great difficulty overcoming an attack, theft or aggression. Something that little by little immobilizes us until it becomes a traumatic event.
Other people, on the other hand, get over it and resume their life normally. In other words, the impact of an event is not the same for all people and we are not all equally susceptible to generating traumatic memories.
However, there are some factors that can be a real risk factor for post-traumatic stress disorder. Are the following:
- Having been abused or mistreated in childhood.
- Having been the victim of threats or assaults during adolescence or adulthood.
- Having witnessed a violent event.
- Living in a context of war or armed conflict.
- Be a witness or victim of natural disasters.
Neurobiology of traumatic memory
Traumatic memory is directly related to multiple brain mechanisms. In fact, it affects the brain in so many ways:
- The amygdala, or the structure that deals with the emotional content of our memories, is hyperactive. It warns our brains of danger. In this way, having experienced a traumatic situation leads to considering almost every event in one’s life risky. Hence the feeling of constant fear.
- The study conducted by Dr. Douglas Bremmer, of Emory University (Atlanta), shows us that the memory of a trauma alters the size of various brain structures. These include the hippocampus, the area related to memory that shrinks due to stress.
- Other areas of the brain. The difficulty in thinking, making decisions or concentrating is due to a reduced function of the prefrontal cortex.
Sensory distortions, malfunctions and disorders
Trauma psychologists like Van Der Kolk (1996) tell us that people who are going through trauma often suffer from sensory disturbances. That is, they may have auditory hallucinations, be more sensitive to visual stimuli and experience sensations that bring them back to the traumatic memory.
Similarly, another aspect of traumatic memory needs to be kept in mind: it distorts memories. And it does this in two ways:
- Some people integrate memories that aren’t quite true, but that intensify the suffering.
- The reverse can also happen. There are people who “block” certain events, certain images and experiences. The mind uses this defense mechanism to decrease suffering (dissociative amnesia).
Trauma psychology is a growing field. Knowing our memory – and the brain itself – offers us new ways to respond to a condition that thousands of people suffer from every day.
After all, trauma is never forgotten, but we can learn to deal with it by giving ourselves new opportunities to be happy.