The Nature of Traumatic Memory: Why Our Memories Terrifying Events are Spotty

As a psychologist who works with trauma, I am very much aware of how difficult it can be to recall details of traumatic experience.Even the question, “can you tell me about your trauma?” can be befuddling, if not somewhat disturbing, to one who has experienced it. In fact, it is the very nature of our human response to trauma that we defend against taking in the frightening experience in its entirety.

We are designed by nature to not let the full weight of the experience become conscious, such is her protective strategy. Nature does not want us thinking about whether or not we should run from a saber toothed tiger, she wants us just to run, so she puts first things first, action before thought.

When our fear is triggered, our muscles fill with extra blood flow and our body spurts adrenaline so we can fight or flee. However our thinking mind, the part of us that makes sense of situations, our prefrontal cortex shuts down.

But even though our conscious awareness is compromised, we still carry the imprint of the experience in the form of sense memories and emotions that inscribe themselves into our mind-body for decades and decades to come and continue to affect how we see ourselves and the world we live in. And the more emotionally charged and sense- laden the memory, the deeper the imprint, because it is the limbic system that gathers the sensorial data surrounding the experience as well as the emotions felt at the time.

Fight/Flight: Why Our Thinking Mind Shut Down

What happens to us in the moment of a terrifying experience is shocking and out of normal context, which is part of why we experience it as traumatic. At that moment when we are overwhelmed by something out of our control, our thinking mind, our prefrontal cortex, shuts down so that our limbic system, our fight/flight, can rev up. When we are flooded with fear, we go on automatic, our animal unconscious takes over. When we cannot flee or stand and defend ourselves, or when escape is not possible, we dissociate, we remain present in our bodies but our minds go somewhere else, we are in a terror state.We’re frozen in fear, our mind goes blank. This means that the thinking mind is not processing our experience, making sense of it and relating it to our sense of self or placing it into the context of our normal life. Because the prefrontal cortex is not doing its job of elevating “experience” (read: emotions and sense impressions) to a conscious level and making sense of them, frightening or traumatic experiences do not get processed and recorded in the same way as ordinary experience. These experiences do not get thought through, reflected on and placed into context. Rather they live in the unconscious waiting to be triggered by some circumstance or trigger event that “jogs” them, till then they are often “forgotten about” or split out of consciousness. As a result of this, people who have been traumatized may not have a clear picture of just what happened to them that they can easily talk about. Rather pieces of these experiences live inside of our mind/body in a fragmented state. We store the sensory information that the limbic system has recorded — the sights, sounds, smells, and so forth — alongside our emotional responses, which are also processed by the limbic system. But we attach no storyline that would help us to place those events within the framework of our lives, because that part of our mind that thinks, is temporarily off line. Therefore the body/mind “memories” go underground.

The Difficulty in Talking About It

So after the fact, when a well-dressed therapist in a nicely furnished office asks us to reenter those disparate splinters of personal experience and drag them from their hidden world into comprehensible, well-ordered sentences, we feel anxious and put on the spot. What are we supposed to say? It was so long ago, and it feels so very far away. And our terror is retriggered and we may reexperience that mind/body that we lived in at the terrifying moment.We relive the trauma. But those very moments hold important pieces of our aliveness. They have altered the way we live in our own bodies, experience our lives, and connect in our relationships.

Being asked a barrage of either well-meaning or invasive questions can leave us staring into space. Filled with anxiety and fear. We feel unable to bring the fragmented memories of what happened into consciousness long enough to describe them. And when asked how we felt at the time, we may draw an emotional blank. We may feel almost numb.

This inability to tell a clear trauma story can be seen by others as memory loss around traumatic events. It is in actuality, what I have learned to look for as a psychologist, in order to determine veracity.

Senior fellow at The Meadows, psychologist, psychodramatist, author Emotional Sobreity,ACoA Trauma Syndrome, Forgiving and Moving On, Huff Post blogger, speaker