Your memory can be categorized into a few different functions and trauma can affect these functions in several different ways. This is because your memory is related to several different areas in your brain that serve different purposes. Trauma can affect your memory in significant ways that impact trauma recovery.
There are 4 different kinds of memory, each associated with different parts of your brain, and each affected slightly differently after trauma. The combination of trauma’s effects on the different areas of the brain associated with memory accounts for why survivors of trauma often have difficult remembering specific details of the trauma, or why they may have confusion about the order of events that happened around the time of the trauma.
Semantic Memory and Trauma
This kind of memory has to do with remembering general knowledge, such as knowing who the president is, knowing what an orange is, or knowing the difference between a truck and a car.
Semantic memory is associated with the temporal lobe and the inferior parietal cortex in the brain. Information from different parts of the brain, such as words, sounds, or images combine to form semantic memories. When trauma occurs, it can prevent the brain from combining this information correctly to form semantic memories.
This area of memory is particularly damaging for children exposed to trauma, because their brains are still in the growth and development phase and so trauma can have a devastating effect. Children exposed to trauma can literally have their brains re-wired to stay in survival mode, which can affect them when it comes to behavior and learning for years.
Episodic Memory and Trauma
Episodic memory has to do with how you remember specific events, including traumatic memories. This can include memories such specific words or actions that occurred during a traumatic assault, memories of the physical or emotional pain you experienced, or how scared you felt before, during, and after a traumatic event.
The hippocampus in the brain is the area associated with episodic memory and is involved in creating and recalling episodic memories. When a trauma occurs, episodic memory can become fragmented and the sequences of events can get jumbled up in your brain. You can think of it like your memories being in a file cabinet. They might be all in order before a significant traumatic event happens, but trauma is like someone opened up the file cabinet and threw all the files on the floor and mixed them up.
These episodic memories can become confused, and trauma survivors might even begin to doubt themselves when their memory doesn’t line up with certain facts such as the timeline of when the trauma happened or what happened shortly before or after the incident.
The impact of trauma on episodic memory is especially difficult when the trauma involved a crime and there is law enforcement involved. Law enforcement is always looking to sort out the facts and verify timelines when they are doing an investigation. When a trauma survivor’s memory doesn’t completely align with discoverable facts, law enforcement might question their version of events. This can leave survivors feeling self-doubt and sometimes re-traumatized by the law enforcement process.
Procedural Memory and Trauma
Procedural memory has to do with retaining memory about how to do things, such as remembering how to ride a bike or drive a car, or remembering the code for a gate or security system.
The striatum is the area of the brain associated with procedural memory. When trauma impacts this area of the brain, it can change patterns that were previously engrained in your brain. For example, you might find that you forget to do things that you normally do by habit, or you might forget certain details that you need to remember.
Trauma can even cause you to unconsciously tense up your muscles because you have been thrust into survival mode by the traumatic event, and this can cause pain to build up over time. Tension can become a habit that forms because you always feel on edge after a trauma. Particularly for people who have held onto trauma for many years and haven’t been able to heal from it, this physical pain can stay stuck in your body and manifest as aches, pain, inflammation, and muscle tension.
Emotional Memory and Trauma
Emotional memory has to do with the emotional response you get from triggers, such as feeling scared or anxious when you drive past the location where a traumatic incident happened. You could also experience emotional memories when you have to face a person who abused or assaulted you.
The amygdala is associated with these emotional memories surrounding traumatic experiences. Sometimes, a trigger can cause an onset of emotional memories to surface, and you may feel like you are re-living the event in your mind. This can cause significant emotional distress, fear that continues to re-surfaces, and recurring intrusive thoughts about the traumatic experience.
Emotional memories in response to triggers affect almost everyone who has experienced a traumatic event in their life. Coping with triggers is an integral part of trauma recovery and is one of the earliest challenges that survivors face after a traumatic event or situation. Emotional memories can last a lifetime and can significantly affect a survivor’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Integrating Traumatic Memories in Trauma Recovery
All of these effects of trauma on the brain means that trauma recovery is about more than just trying to figure out how to move past the trauma. Trauma survivors need support to understand what is happening inside their minds so that they know what is happening. It’s hard for survivors to feel like they can move on with their lives when they face triggers all around them that constantly bring them back to the traumatic event.
Trauma survivors may feel like they are going crazy because of all of these responses going on in the brain. The brain is a highly sensitive and complicated organ, and it functions to keep every area of your body alive. That means that when it senses danger, it’s going to react in whatever way is necessary to keep you alive.
Your brain wants you to react to every trigger because it is protecting you from potential danger that would be traumatic again for you. This causes a lot of distress, because you might feel like you’re on high alert even when you don’t want to be. Learning to cope with and rationalize what is going on in your brain may take practice and support.
When it comes to memory, remember to think about the file cabinet and how much disarray has happened to cause your memories to be foggy or disorganized. You can try to put things back in order bit by bit, which might help you to integrate more of your memories and gain a fuller picture of what happened so that you can shape your own understanding about your experiences.
However, try to be kind to yourself by not furthering self-doubt when your memories are fuzzy and unclear. You may not remember every detail about the trauma that happened to you, but you know how your experiences made you feel, and that is even more important. Processing the feelings that you had before, during, and after a trauma is just as important, if not more so, than the details of the event itself.
Trauma recovery can be difficult because it’s never fun to have to sort through all your emotions and talk about difficult experiences. Working with an experienced trauma recovery specialist and gathering support from caring loved ones are the most important steps in recovering from trauma, regardless of the specifics of the trauma that you have experienced.
Trauma can have a widespread damaging effect on many different areas of a person’s life, from their emotional state to their physical health to their job performance and their outlook on life. This also includes the effects that trauma has on your relationships with other people, whether romantic or platonic.
The Impact of Trauma on Your Relationships
Trauma disrupts your sense of safety and changes the way that you view the world. Sometimes, the people in your life may not know how to react to the changes you have gone through, and this can have a profound effect on your relationships with those people. People that you thought were supportive may disappear, or change how they approach you. You may also have difficulty trusting others, which can make intimacy (both physical and emotional) hard to maintain.
Others may want to be supportive, but they may not always know how. This can cause strains in your personal and even professional life as you try to navigate all those changes while also trying to cope with the trauma you’ve experienced.
Furthermore, these effects from trauma can last for years, and the impact on your relationships can last just as long. Often recovery from trauma involves learning to trust the right people in your life and learning to set boundaries with others when needed.
Here are some of the ways that trauma can impact your relationships with other people:
- Other are uncomfortable with your distress
A lot of people don’t really know how to handle it when other people have strong emotions. These are the people who are more likely to walk out of the room if someone starts to cry rather than try to comfort the person crying. When you have survived a trauma, you need people around you who can tolerate your strong emotions when you’re having them. You may find that other people aren’t always able to handle it, and that can be hurtful and make trauma recovery more difficult.
- You may feel others don’t understand you
No one can really understand your direct experience after a traumatic event, because it was a personal experience that happened to you. You may hear people compare experiences they had to your trauma and it might feel like they don’t even come close to understanding the depth of your trauma. It’s hard to open up and even allow someone to be supportive when you don’t feel like they really understand how much of an impact this trauma had on you.
- You may be worried about being judged
Trauma survivors often experience feelings of guilt or shame related to trauma, especially if they have been abused. It may be hard to open up and share with others, even if you want to talk about it, because you worry that they will judge you, blame you, or look at you differently if they know certain details about what happened.
- You are not sure who to trust
When you have been traumatized, your safety has been threatened in some way or another. This can have a lasting impact on your ability to trust others. You may fear your own judgement of character, and be afraid of trusting the wrong person. This can make it hard to recognize when there is someone in your life that you perhaps SHOULD trust and open up to more.
- Others don’t know what to say or do
Just as people may be uncomfortable with your distressful emotions after a trauma, sometimes people want to help, but they just don’t know how. They may say something like “I’m here if you need me”, not realizing that it’s already hard enough for you to ask for help without having to figure out how they are supposed to support you as well. Although they may be well-intentioned, they may just not really know instinctively what you need, which might leave you feeling isolated.
- It’s hard to ask for what you need
It’s hard to ask for help under the best of circumstances, which makes it even harder when you’re trying to recover from a trauma and coping with the overwhelming symptoms you may be having. You also may not know what you need sometimes, so when people ask you how they can help, you may not know what to tell them. That can be frustrating for both people, because sometimes, all anyone can do is try to be there and listen when needed.
- Previously enjoyable things no longer bring happiness
You may have enjoyed doing certain activities with your friends or family or coworkers before the trauma occurred, and now you don’t have any interest in those things anymore. It can strain your relationships when you have to change your lifestyle to cope with triggers and manage your emotional reactions differently. People may not know if you want to be invited because they know you are coping with trauma, but it can still hurt if they don’t ask.
- Your needs have changed
It’s so important to pay attention to and honor your own needs when you are recovering from trauma. When you now need to take time to go to therapy appointments, or avoid certain places or people that are not healthy for your recovery, other people may not understand. It can be hard to try and prioritize yourself and your recovery, especially if you already struggled with that before a traumatic experience. Your relationships can be affected when your start to prioritize your own needs, but you have a right to communicate what you need for your own recovery process.
- Your emotions are all over the place
Trauma recovery can sometimes feel like a roller-coaster with your emotions. You may experience anger, fear, anxiety, depression, shame, or grief that can come unexpectedly. Even people close to you who know that you are struggling after a trauma may not know what to expect and may not always know how to react or support you. Sometimes you may need someone to comfort and console you, other times you may need to be distracted and cheered up.
- You cope differently
Maybe you used to like to go out to a bar with friends to relax and have fun, but now being in that environment is a trigger for you. Or perhaps you were once outgoing and now you feel the need to isolate yourself to feel safe. People may be confused about the changes they see in you. You don’t have to explain yourself to everybody, but do try to let the people close to you know what you’re going through. Use your best judgement to choose who and what you decide to share about what you’re going through.
How Can I Deal with These Changes?
It’s important to understand that relationships with others can be hard under the best of circumstances, so it is not unusual for these things to happen in your personal life when you are coping with a traumatic experience. The important thing to remember in your trauma recovery journey is that you have a right to seek out the support you need from the people who are best able to provide it. This means that you may have to work on setting boundaries with the people who are not providing you with great support after the trauma.
Although it can be hard to talk about all the things you’re coping with, you need support from the people that care about you. Being open about what you’re going through with the people that you can trust can help you receive the support that you need from them. It’s okay to talk about why you’re not up for doing the same things you used to, or you need space, or you need company, whatever it happens to be.
Trauma recovery is a journey, and it can take a long time, because there’s no real finish line. There’s no point at which you get to where the trauma ceases to exist because you can’t turn around and change the past. You can only move forward and try to give yourself the best chance of recovering from the trauma by choosing to seek support for your own needs.
When you find people that truly are supportive, make sure that you let them know that their support is important and helpful to you. It’s hard to know how to ask for support from your loved ones, but the ones who truly support you will be glad that you asked and talked about how you are handling everything.
For more on trauma recovery, see these posts:
How Trauma Affects Your Brain
5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery
When a person experiences a trauma, the brain reacts in several different ways which can affect the life of that person moving forward. Just as a physical injury from a traumatic accident can affect your body at the site of the injury for years to come, your mind can be also be impacted for years after a traumatic incident, whether due to a physical or psychological trauma.
Trauma causes an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear of potential death, serious injury, serious loss (death of someone else), pain, or entrapment. These overwhelming feelings and fear cause the brain to react in ways to try and protect itself. Traumatic experiences can overwhelm the brain’s ability to cope using normal methods of stress relief, and thus alternative coping methods have to be developed, which can cause disruption in the lives of people trying to recover from trauma.
In order to understand why people may have certain reactions to traumatic events, it is important to understand what trauma really is and the range of ways that the brain reacts to the trauma.
Defining Traumatic Experiences
Trauma can occur in response to major onetime events such as natural disasters, a car accident, witnessing or being a victim of violence or a crime such as sexual or physical assault. It may also occur in response to chronic or repetitive experiences such as child abuse or neglect, military combat, neighborhood violence and crime, wartime atrocities, physically or emotionally abusive relationships, and long-term deprivation.
The most important thing to understand about trauma is that it is based on a person’s subjective experience. Two people could experience a similar incident but react in very different ways. The objective facts of the experience do not always cause the same reaction in everybody, so it’s important to understand that it is the individual that defines whether the experience was traumatic or not.
Whether a person perceives an incident as being traumatic or not often has to do with how much danger they were in during the event, whether loss of life occurred or could have occurred, whether it was a one-time incident or an ongoing experience, whether they have access to reasonable safety measures, how much support they have from friends and family, and whether they are validated or shamed for their experiences.
What are the Symptoms of Trauma
When a person has experienced a trauma, such as a sexual assault, a home invasion, or a significant loss, they may experience a wide range of symptoms in reaction to the trauma. Remember that these are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL situations. These symptoms may include:
- Emotional distress
- Distressful and intrusive memories
- Constant feeling of being in danger
- Sleep disturbances
- Emotional numbing or disconnection from others
- Inability to trust others
- Hyper-arousal (constant worry or checking behaviors)
- Physical reactions (headaches, muscle aches)
- Uncontrollable fear
- Confusion about timing or order of events
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Difficulty concentrating
These are all indications that the brain is attempting to either prevent further trauma from happening again by keeping you in a constant state or arousal or protecting you from potential emotional distress by suppressing upsetting or painful emotions. It is also normal to experience an increase in these symptoms in reaction to another stressors that arises or surrounding a stressful time such as an anniversary or other significant date related to the trauma.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
When you have experienced trauma, your brain goes into a state of hyper-arousal, basically because your fight or flight response has been triggered and your brain reacts by trying to prepare you for potential danger. That potential for danger reverberates through your entire body, including your limbic system and your autonomic nervous system.
Your limbic system includes the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala, as well as other areas of the brain, and has to do with processing emotions and forming memories. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating many bodily functions, including your arousal to emotional circumstances and the functioning of your autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, breathing rate, sweating, heart-rate). The hippocampus helps you convert what is happening in the present moment into long-term memories. The amygdala helps to control reactions to stimuli, such as aggression and fear.
When trauma triggers a stress reaction in your limbic system, it can feel overwhelming because your brain is not used to dealing with such a high level of stress, and so its functions can be negatively affected. This reaction in the brain accounts for why some trauma survivors have difficulty recalling the correct order of timing or certain details of the event.
It’s not because they are lying or exaggerating, which some trauma survivors are accused of when their memory is impaired due to a trauma. It is because the part of their limbic system responsible for creating and storing memories was flooded by stress and the entire system was reacting in ways to focus solely on surviving the traumatic situation. Unfortunately, this memory impairment in reaction to trauma is often used against survivors to try and minimize what happened to them or cause doubt in their account of the events.
The truth is that when traumatic events happen, your memory can get mixed up and certain events may not be organized correctly in your brain’s memory filing system, so to speak. This doesn’t mean that a survivor’s perception of events is invalid, it just means that their memory may have been damaged during the traumatic event, which can cause further confusion, shame, or embarrassment about the traumatic event.
Your autonomic nervous system includes the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and it is responsible for alternately preparing you to handle a dangerous situation, and then calming you back down when the danger is over.
During a stressful event, the nervous system releases the stress hormone cortisol to give you a boost of energy to react to the dangerous situation. Normally, when a stressful even passes, the nervous system will then regulate your hormonal output and bring your back to your normal homeostasis. However, when a major trauma overwhelms your system in reaction to the perceived danger you are in that flood of stress hormones might remained heightened, leaving you feeling stuck in a constant state of hyper-arousal.
This state of hyper-arousal gets exacerbated when you are being constantly flooded with stressors, such as being stuck in an abusive relationship (where you feel you’re always walking on eggshells), or if you experience multiple triggers back to back (such as losing several loved ones in a short period of time). This relentless stress to your system causes your brain to react in a way that can feel like you are constantly on the look-out for the next potential danger or loss, and can make it hard to get back to a period of relative emotional stability.
When to Seek Treatment for Trauma
Trauma recovery can take time, and there is no hard and fast time-line for how long it takes for each individual. However, if you have been experiencing the symptoms described above for more than 3 months after the initial trauma, you may need to seek out professional help. Remember that it is normal to have these emotional reactions to trauma, but talking with someone in a safe environment can help you to process your fears and the emotional damage that you have endured.
If you have people who you know are supportive and understanding, it can be helpful to talk to those who care about you and explain what you are going through. It can be hard to reach out for help, but it is so helpful when you feel supported by those who truly care about you. Talking about trauma can be hard, so turning to a professional therapist or a support group for people who have been through similar traumas can be incredibly healing and help you get to the next level in your recovery.
If you are experiencing any of the following after a trauma, please consider seeking out a professional with experience in trauma recovery:
- Severe fear, anxiety, or depression
- Trouble with functioning at home or work
- Disturbing nightmares or flashbacks
- Avoiding more and more things to prevent distress
- Unable to talk about the trauma with caring friends or family
- Feeling overwhelmed or frozen in life and unable to move forward
- Abusing substances to feel relief from emotional distress
Trauma recovery involves processing memories related to the trauma and the feelings that were triggered during and after the event. An informed trauma therapist can help you to face feelings and memories that have caused you distress and discharge some of the emotional energy or anger you may feel related to the traumatic event. You may also learn new ways to cope with overwhelming feelings and learn how to re-build your ability to assess safety and build trusting relationships.
Trauma disrupts your body and your brain’s ability to feel safe and at ease. Your nervous system may feel like it is stuck in overdrive and you can’t calm down or feel balanced. In order to dispel that excess energy and feel safe again, you may have to go through some uncomfortable things, like talking about painful memories. Don’t push yourself to do things you’re not ready for, but recognize that healing takes time and you don’t have to go through it alone.
For more on trauma recovery, see this post on 5 Things Needed for Trauma Recovery.
Recovery from trauma can be a complicated, long, and difficult process. In truth, a traumatic experience is not always something that a person can get over, but there are ways to heal and work through a traumatic experience. Trauma recovery is about stabilization, healing, and building back mental and emotional strength that may have been damaged by the trauma.
Trauma occurs when an event or series of events happens to a person that threatens their safety, or they witness trauma occurring to another person, or it could also occur when an intense emotional loss happens. These situations can happen in the course of an act of violence, a natural disaster, the loss of a loved one, especially in disturbing or unusual circumstances, or after experiences of abuse.
Trauma causes recurring, intrusive, distressful memories or thoughts related to the trauma, flashbacks or nightmares of the trauma, and physiological reactions such as fatigue or insomnia. The psychological impact on those who suffer from trauma-related symptoms can be intense and painful. Recovery from trauma involves learning to live with the new reality created by the trauma, processing the event and the emotional response to the trauma, and learning to both release the emotional pain and simultaneously accept that there may always remain some pain. It can be incredibly daunting for people who feel vulnerable and injured from a traumatic event.
Whether you have experienced a trauma yourself, or you know someone who has, it is important to understand some of the things trauma survivors need in order to recover and heal from a traumatic event in their life. Here are some of the most important aspects of trauma recovery that I have found are needed to support those who have experienced a trauma:
Trauma often involves a threat to personal safety or the safety of someone you care about. This can happen due to exposure to war or other civilian violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, or childhood abuse, or in the case of the death of a loved one or the near death of yourself. That threat to safety causes survivors to live in a state of hyper-arousal, due to an ingrained instinct for survival. When your safety is threatened, you have to drop everything and try to achieve a sense of safety again before you can move forward with your life. This is why is is so important for trauma survivors to feel safe. This might be accomplished by increasing security at home or other areas, or by avoiding areas that trigger a sense of fear or safety threat. It may also mean building a sense of emotional safety by setting boundaries with others or limiting contact with people who have been abusive.
A major barrier to healing from trauma is when survivors are not believed when they talk about or report their experiences. When you have experienced a traumatic event, and then are told that you are a liar or that you are exaggerating your experience for attention, this causes further trauma. A world that already doesn’t feel safe feels even more threatening. Survivors may feel that they are being blamed for their own victimization, or that their own word about their personal experience is not valid. If you are not in the position of a court of law that needs to make judgements about an event to determine legal procedures, then you do not need to appoint yourself as the judge and jury of someone’s experience. Leave the evidence questions to the courts, and be supportive of the people you care about. If you have been traumatized, seek support from those who do believe you, and limit your engagement with those who express disbelief or judgement about your trauma. It can be incredibly painful when those who are supposed to care about you do not believe you, but there is support out there from professionals and advocates that can help.
People who have experienced a trauma need to be understood in addition to being believed. Validating someone’s experience by listening to their story and understanding why the experience has impacted them in the way that is has is key to trauma recovery. Trauma survivors need to know that the people around them that care about them are listening and understanding them, so that they feel safe expressing themselves and working through the process of healing. Validation can be provided by family, friends, caregivers, helping professionals, and communities. Feeling validated that your trauma is understood by others to be real and impactful can help you feel supported when you are trying to recover from a traumatic experience.
Empathy is different from sympathy, in that sympathy means to feel sorry for someone, whereas empathy means to really understand how someone is feeling. Trauma survivors benefit from receiving empathy from those who have experienced similar traumas, or who can relate to the feelings a trauma survivor is experiencing. This can be done through support groups or through group therapy, or by talking to a friend who has gone through a similar experience. Being engaged with others who truly understand your trauma can help you feel less isolated and more validated throughout the healing process. You don’t have to experience the exact same thing to be empathetic, though. If you want to help by empathizing with a trauma survivor, you can do so by trying to relate to their feelings of fear, shame, loss, and uncertainty. This doesn’t mean that you need to relay all the times when you have felt those emotions as well, as you don’t want to turn the conversation back around to yourself when you’re trying to be supportive. But it can mean just saying that you understand what is is like to have those feelings, and you want to support their healing throughout their recovery process.
Traumatic events often occur with an accompanying loss of control. If someone has been violent towards you or violated your rights, you probably felt out of control during the event because your power was taken from you at that moment. If you have experienced a loss or are grieving, you may feel out of control due to an inability to prevent a death or other losses from happening, and knowing that you do not have the power to bring them back. Reinstating power in other areas of your life can help you regain that sense of control that was lost during the trauma. This might mean reclaiming your right to set boundaries with other people or systems, or it might mean learning to say NO in stronger and more assertive ways in response to things you don’t want to do. It may also mean finding ways to heal through advocacy, such as mothers who have lost children to drunk driving do when they join an organization like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Finding ways to exert your power in a healthy and productive way can help the trauma recovery process. If you want to support someone who has been traumatized, helping them to reclaim that power and respecting their choices about how to reclaim that power can be one way to support those individuals.
Trauma recovery is a unique process for each person who has been through a traumatic event. While the recovery process might involve therapy, support groups, learning new coping skills, advocating for needed changes, and reclaiming lost power, each person’s needs will be different. Some people may find power in forgiveness, while others may feel that they need to hold onto their anger for awhile. That has to be okay, because no one should dictate how a trauma survivor recovers. When we dictate how trauma survivors find their path to recovery, we actually disempower them, which is counter-productive. Instead, listening and supporting people without judgement or attempts to convince them what they need to do is more effective and helpful. Keeping these 5 needs in mind when we try to support the people in our lives who have experienced trauma will help us all to be better friends, family members, and neighbors to those who have already been through enough trauma.