Processing trauma and trauma memories
We are often led to believe that trauma is a big life-changing event, like a car crash, a natural disaster, or being a victim of a violent crime. This is considered a 'big T trauma'. However, what about 'little t traumas': a break-up, the death of a pet, losing a job... Whilst these don’t threaten your physical safety, they can produce a similar trauma response. Ultimately, any event or ongoing situation that causes distress, fear and a sense of helplessness qualifies as trauma; it is not the event itself but how it feels to the individual.
Trauma is impacted by the way the memories are stored and the meaning we give these memories. The difficulties are then generally maintained through avoidance.
Let's look at each one in turn.
Normal memories are stored in our unconscious. They are recalled as and when we need them, for example, you recount a funny story to a friend of something your child said or did. We are able to access memories when we need them and put them back when we have finished with them. These are contextualised representations or C-Reps, memories of normal events.
We have the ability to keep memories in our unconscious until needed; otherwise our minds would be chaos with these memories flooding our brains all day long. Normal memories consist of words and stories, where we remember the narrative. We don’t necessarily remember what we were wearing or what room we were in but they are coherent and complete - they stay put in our unconscious until deliberately recalled. They are linked to the past - you roughly know when back there they occurred. Memories can change over time, as you don’t recall every last piece of detail, the original emotions fade and are often linked to other memories. They are generally tolerated or welcomed parts of your past.
However, when memories are created during times of horror, terror, shame, helplessness, or pain they get stored in different ways. They consist of vivid data of the events, including the sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes, pain and feelings and thoughts. Memories are fragmented or jumbled, and are easily triggered and intrusive. They don’t have a time tag like normal memories - it feels as if the memory is happening right here and right now.
Memories can become locked in over time and the original distress is activated, isolated from other memories and avoided as they cause so much distress. These are sensory-bound representations or S-Reps, memories of traumatic events.
Research has shown that different parts of the brain are activated with normal and traumatic memories. When neutral memories are recalled, the Broca’s area is activated. This is a key component of our complex speech and language network. Traumatic memories, on the other hand, are not stored here, this is where we get the term ‘it's too awful for words’. Many other parts of the brain are activated by the trauma memories, including the amygdala, which is used to detect threats and activates the flight or flight response.
Core beliefs are strongly held beliefs and assumptions, about ourselves, others and the world around us. They are developed during childhood and can be positive or negative, for example, I am lovable or I am unlovable, people are kind or people are mean, the world is a good place or the world is a scary place. These beliefs act like a lens through which we see the world, the lens also acts as a filter, filtering out things that don’t fit with our view or distorting things to make them fit.
Core beliefs influence our thoughts, feelings and make us act in a certain way. When we make assumptions, they are generally based on things that strengthens our beliefs. If something doesn’t fit, we might ignore it or we might distort it - you find some way to change it to make it fit, as it is easier to make something fit than changing your beliefs.
For example, if you believed that the world is a dangerous place, you might start to notice more dangerous things, or notice more of the bad news stories in the media, filtering out all the good. You then behave or make choices based on what makes you feel safe versus what you actually want.
So what happens when an event comes along that doesn’t fit and is too big to distort or too big to ignore? Then our beliefs do give way, and it colours the way we see things, even when that event has passed, it leaves its mark by contaminating the lens through which we view ourselves, others and the world around us. This is also true with multiple smaller events. Over time the lens gradually changes.
Internal avoidance trap (maintenance cycle)
Traumatic memories cause distress so we tend to push them away; we also tend to avoid the activities, places or people associated with these memories, as we don’t want to be triggered. As a result, the beliefs are never challenged and we are unable to process these memories. So we become stuck in this avoidance trap.
When the unprocessed memory falls into our conscious through flashbacks, or dreams or intrusive thoughts, it brings with it the original fear, horror or helplessness, our amygdala is activated and our bodies respond in a way which makes us feel like the event is happening again, this pushes us even harder to try not to think about it. But as we do, this memory is left unprocessed and remains in its original state. By not processing it, it means we cannot reformat it into a normal memory so we go round and round in the loop trying to avoid it.
The problem with thoughts is the harder you try to push them away and not think about them the harder it gets, some people keep busy some people find other coping mechanisms, like alcohol, food, and drugs. However these are only short-term solutions, at some point they pop back up, often when you least expect or want them. Just like a boomerang, the harder you throw it the harder it will come back.
Processing these memories with a qualified counsellor can help, as you work through the memories, breaking them down into smaller more manageable parts, you start the process of reformatting them - not deleting them, but storing them differently so that they become more like normal memories.
Working through this process with a trusted professional allows the memories to unfold out of your head and into the world and when they hit the air they begin to change.