It is as if time stops at the moment of trauma. The traumatic moment becomes encoded in an abnormal form of memory, which breaks spontaneously into consciousness, both as flashbacks . . . and as traumatic nightmares. . .
Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery
Memories are very important to making sense of our lives. That's why people with any sort of brain damage or dementia often struggle because when they lose their memories, they lose much of their ability to function in the world. Traumatic memories are created at the moment of trauma. In this moment, the person - and the person's brain - is overwhelmed. Indeed, as Judith Herman says about trauma, "traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail." Often the person freezes, helpless to act either because they will be killed if they do so or because they have been overpowered by someone or something stronger than themselves. Some trauma survivors were drugged against their will or told family members would be killed if they tried to escape. We can only imagine the sort of traumatic memories the young man above is struggling with and the courage he must have to get on with his life.
Characteristics of Traumatic Memory
Exist outside of normal time
Possess heightened reality
Stored differently in the brain
Difficult to fit into the "story" of one's life
Go to Traumatic memory for more on the characteristics of traumatic memory.
What's the Amygdala Got to do With It?
Okay, what is the amygdala and what does it have to do with traumatic memories? The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep within the brain's limbic system. During traumatic events, the amygdala may become damaged and, after the event, continue to function differently than the amygdala of people who have not experienced trauma. The science of exactly how this works is somewhat lost on me. The important take-away point is that after trauma our brains, and the way in which we process memory and emotions, are changed in a profound and long-lasting way. I think that this understanding not only normalizes certain aspects of PTSD, it helps us understand how the process of recovery works and the key role that memory plays in healing. For more on this fascinating topic, see Memory, the Amygdala, and PTSD.
Below, Dr. Frank Ochberg does an excellent job of explaining the nature of trauma memories.
Why is understanding Traumatic Memory important to the PTSD recovery process?
Knowledge is power. Understanding, if only in a limited way, how traumatic memory functions allows someone with PTSD to understand more about what is happening in their mind and why PTSD can be so resistant to change. Dr. Ochberg does a good job of explaining this in the video above when he describes the difference between verbal memory and non-verbal memory, which he terms VAM and SAM. Trauma memory is a deeply rooted memory that was created under extraordinary conditions. Understanding the power of this special kind of memory is the first step to understanding and coping with PTSD triggers. Next time, more about flashbacks and how they are triggered.