“Stressful experiences such as childhood sexual abuse are so overwhelming and traumatic that the memories hide like shadows in the brain” (Paola Borella).
Bessel van der Kolk is a prime advocate of the idea of body memories – the body remembers what the mind forgets. He along with many others propose that traumatic memories are not integrated and so are not so much remembered, but relived. Often trauma survivors will present in therapy as being very cut off from their bodies and body work and yoga is an important start to encourage people to feel safe enough to experience sensations in the body. Often one of the final stages of trauma work is being able to really be in your body.
How are traumatic memories stored?
They are encoded differently in the brain due to the overwhelming emotional arousal and the release of stress hormones affects hippocampus memory functioning and the strength of memory consolidation. Trauma is stored in the limbic system, which is the area of the brain that processes sensations and emotions, but not language. This can explain why some trauma sufferers have implicit memories of emotions linked to the trauma, but no explicit memories. Explicit memories are stored in the hippocampus amygdala, and neocortex and implicit memories are in the cerebellum and basal ganglia. The hippocampus is responsible for organising information, but when its functioning is hindered memories cannot be organised into a whole and will be later retrieved as fragmented, isolated images, bodily sensations, sounds, smells etc. It is highly common for those who have experienced trauma to have hazy memories that might emerge later on in life. It is thought that it takes approx 20 years for repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse to resurface, and the younger the person at the time of trauma that greater likelihood of amnesia – this is functional amnesia.
van der Kolk’s client did not have any memory of being involved in a nightclub fire, but on the anniversary of the event she kept re-enacting her experience. Dissociation is a very common way of coping in response to sexual abuse as it is an out of body experience. It disrupts the storage and retrieval of memories and can explain why people have gaps in their memory.
But all these changes in the brain are reversible – with an enlarged hippocampus then one can more readily overcome fear responses and store and recall memories more easily.
Working with traumatic memories
It is important that distinctions are made between current stresses and past trauma to avoid feeling re-traumatised by triggers. – identifying triggers and then using grounding techniques to minimise their impact
When experiencing flashbacks, the flashback halting protocol devised by Babette Rothschild can be useful to help with grounding: https://makingsenseoftrauma.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Flashback-Protocol.pdf
or it can be found in Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: Norton.
Body scanning and beginning to recover memories and process them is an important part of therapy. But before one can work with traumatic memories, first of all the client has to be safe enough to do this – feeling safe in the client-therapist relationship and having a secure bond, but also having some control over their behaviours.