Many of the people I see already have memories of trauma; they just don’t know that they do. Or they have discounted their experiences as traumatic because they may think that PTSD is just for veterans or “people who had it worse than they do”.
To understand how traumatic memories are processed, let us first look at a normal memory. Normal memories consist of three basic components:
the narrative, context or story of what is happening (I am walking to grandmother’s house to take her some baked goods)
sensory memories (I can see the trees in the wood, feel my cape on my back, smell the flowers as I go by)
- feeling state (I am a little worried about rumors of the big, bad wolf in the forest)
The younger we are when we lay down memories, the less likely we are to have component 1, the story of what is happening. We can only have a story if we are old enough to be verbal and have words to describe what is happening; this is why we don’t really have clear memories until we are a few years old.
When we are heavily traumatized, especially as children our memories get divided up into their components. One hypothesis is that the brain does this so it can keep functioning and not ‘crash’ or become physically injured.
Let’s say Red Riding Hood becomes traumatized by her encounter with the wolf. Her three components get scattered and the associations between them are lost.
So when RRH comes to therapy she might say something like: “I see a picture of a wolf in the woods in my mind, but that doesn’t feel like a real memory (or my memory), and it doesn’t make sense to me. What was I doing there? Did that even happen?”.
This is a memory fragment.
Our brain doesn’t register memories as ‘real’ unless they have all 3 components.
Alternatively, RRH could come in and say that she is smelling forest smells when she is not in the forest and that those events are filled with a feeling of foreboding.
Or she could just come in in a state of panic and anxiety and not know why she is feeling that way.
Or she can have all three of these symptoms and not know that they are at all associated with each other.
The brain will only reassociate these dissociated fragments when it feels safe enough to heal. And this will happen spontaneously.
This is where therapy can be so helpful. Reassociation often happens when people are talking about a memory fragment. The pairing of the feeling state with either a sensory memory or the narrative (the knowing) of what happened is the first sign that this memory is REAL.
The body does not and cannot lie. You might imagine a picture in your head, even a very sad picture, but if it is not personal to you, chances are you will not cry (unless you are a trained actor). And the feelings in the body are very smart. We can distinguish feelings that feel like they are related to us versus feelings that are related to compassion, or someone else.
So, in healing from trauma, there is a process of acceptance and reassociation. All the images, sensory information, and memory fragments (no matter how disturbing or bizarre) will need to be welcomed back, accepted and organized along with emotions. Then we can heal and know our true story. We can finally leave the past in the past and move forward. Even the worst experiences can be processed, integrated and become ‘just another memory’. This process is what healing from PTSD looks like.