Our brains like to tell stories. Yet it is almost never the case that, when asked to retell an event, we can relay an experience in its totality. Instead, our brains build depictions of our experiences using only relevant details, as we do not encode or remember information that is extraneous to the narrative memories we construct. When we recall these memories, we think of them as condensed narratives with a beginning, middle and end.
However, our brains do not follow the same set of rules when encoding and recalling traumatic memories. Anyone who has experienced trauma knows that these memories do not always feel retrievable, nor do they feel as concrete or “narrativized” as other memories might. The recall of traumatic memories is often a visceral and chaotic experience compared to the familiar story-telling our brains are used to.
Because traumatic memories themselves feel out of control, conceptualizing how the brain experiences a traumatic memory can be similarly tricky. So, I want to share an analogy that I frequently use with clients to help them put words to their experience of remembering traumatic events.
If neutral memories are recalled like a written narrative, then traumatic memories are recalled like a set of printed photos. Retrieving a neutral memory feels like pulling a story from our mental archives and readings its contents. On the other hand, remembering a traumatic memory can feel like accidentally stumbling upon that stack of photos that were tucked away in a drawer and suddenly knocking them onto the floor.
Imagine the set of photos splatter onto the ground below you in a messy heap, and you are suddenly engrossed by their contents–a disorganized pile of moments and elements of a memory all jumbled up. As you pick up the photos and put them back in their place, you find yourself feeling stuck on what you are seeing and remembering in the photos. You may even find yourself transporting back to the memories in the photos and re-experiencing them. Just as photos transport us back to a moment in history, traumatic memories are more than just recalled–they are experienced, oftentimes in a way that blurs the distinction between the present moment and a past trauma.
This difference in how we experience traumatic memories is rooted in a key difference in how our brains store memories of traumatic experiences. Traumatic memories are disorganized partly because our brains struggle to encode the elements of a traumatic experience as a coherent memory. The high-arousal state that results from a traumatic experience affects the brain’s memory processing, which results in information is stored as fragments and snippets of data, similar to a series of photographs scattered on the floor.
When I work with survivors of trauma, I find that helping them to understand this key difference in how traumatic memories are stored helps to resolve some of the confusion and shame they may feel around their memories and the resulting mental health symptoms. Oftentimes, they do not feel in control of the “photos” that their mind stores in its drawers and crevices. These memories can be triggered unexpectedly and can remain in conscious thought in intrusive ways.
The goal of trauma therapy is not to completely sort out the photo snippets or to arrange them into a perfect narrative, but to make the experience of looking through those pictures and memory snippets more tolerable. Through the processes of building internal resources and confronting negative emotions, it is possible to learn to tolerate the sensations and emotions experienced alongside a traumatic memory without feeling overwhelmed by them. In short, the brain’s ability to shape the memory of an experience can also be harnessed to give relief to those suffering from the effects of trauma.