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On Trauma and Memory

Trauma is an overwhelming experience that significantly threatens a person's physical or psychological well-being. It can result from various events such as accidents, natural disasters, violence, abuse, or witnessing traumatic incidents. When individuals experience trauma, it can have profound effects on their memory processes.



Memory is a complex cognitive function. It involves encoding, storing, and retrieving information. It plays a crucial role in our daily lives, allowing us to learn, make decisions, and form our identities. However, traumatic experiences can disrupt these memory processes in several ways. One of the key effects of trauma on memory is the impairment of explicit memory, which refers to the conscious recollection of facts and events. Traumatic memories are often fragmented, disorganised, and difficult to access voluntarily. This phenomenon, known as "traumatic amnesia," can result in gaps in memory for specific aspects of a traumatic event.



We must consider explicit and implicit memory processes when it comes to memory and trauma. Explicit memory involves conscious recollection of past events and can be significantly impacted by trauma. Individuals who have experienced trauma may struggle to remember specific details accurately or have fragmented memories. This can be attributed to encoding difficulties, memory fragmentation, and dissociation (Spring, 2020).



Encoding memories is like converting experiences and knowledge into a language our brains understand and can remember. It's how we take in information, process it, and save it for later recall. Encoding difficulties occur when intense emotional arousal during a traumatic event hinders proper memory encoding. It is the amygdala and hippocampus that play crucial roles in the impact of trauma on memory. The hippocampus is important for forming and recalling memories, while the amygdala processes emotions. The intensity of the experience activates the amygdala, triggering a flood of stress hormones (such as cortisol), affecting the formation and consolidation of memories related to the trauma. This can result in fragmented or incomplete memories and difficulties in remembering and integrating the traumatic event into one's overall memory (van der Kolk, 2017). As a result, traumatic memories may be experienced as isolated sensory impressions, emotions, or flashbacks instead of a linear, understandable sequence of events (Spring, 2020).



Trauma also affects implicit memory, which operates unconsciously and automatically. Survivors of trauma may exhibit heightened sensory and emotional reactivity to trauma-related triggers. These triggers activate implicit memory systems, leading to intense emotional and physical reactions without conscious recollection of the original traumatic experience. This can influence behaviour and responses, such as avoidance behaviours or hypervigilance, due to associations between certain cues and the trauma (Spring, 2020).



Dissociation, a detachment from the present moment, can be an adaptive survival response during a traumatic incident. It creates psychological distance from what is happening. It reduces the immediate impact of trauma, enabling individuals to cope with overwhelming circumstances. Studies have shown that individuals who experience higher levels of dissociation during a traumatic event have a better chance of survival (Marmar et al., 1994).



While memory fragmentation and dissociation may be adaptive survival responses during the traumatic incident, it is important to recognise that they can have long-term consequences for memory processing and psychological well-being. The fragmented and disorganised nature of traumatic memories can lead to difficulty remembering and integrating the traumatic experience into a coherent narrative that we can understand and rule over instead of it ruling over us (Spring, 2020).



As a therapist working with clients who have experienced trauma, it is crucial to create a safe and supportive therapeutic environment that acknowledges the potential impact of trauma on memory. Validating clients' experiences, providing psychoeducation about memory processes, and employing trauma-informed interventions such as grounding techniques, mindfulness, and cognitive restructuring can help address memory-related challenges faced by survivors (Spring, 2020).



References: Marmar, C. R., Weiss, D. S., Metzler, T. J., & Delucchi, K. L. (1994). Characteristics of emergency services personnel related to peritraumatic dissociation during critical incident exposure. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 151(4), 548-553.


Spring, C. (2018). Recovery is my best revenge: My experience of trauma, abuse and dissociation. London, UK: Trigger Press.


Spring, C. (2020). Why the symptoms of trauma make sense. Retrieved from https://www.carolynspring.com/blog/why-the-symptoms-of-trauma-make-sense


van der Kolk, B. A. (2017). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.


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