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Trauma

You're Not Crazy; You're Having a Feeling Memory

Trauma memories are stored differently than other memories. Here's why.

Key points

  • Trauma memories are stored differently than non-trauma memories.
  • Trauma memories often only include feelings and somatic sensations, not coherent narratives.
  • The lack of narrative combined with strong somatic sensations can lead some people to feel "crazy" for feeling as they do.

A memory is just a memory, isn’t it?

Yes and no.

Contributions from the "triune brain" model theory combined with traumatology advancements and neuroscience research reveal that we, in essence, have three major parts to our brains, each with different functions that can contribute to how we form, store, and express memories:

  • The frontal lobes. What we might call our “thinking brain” controls all of our high cognitive, executive functioning skills like impulse control, problem-solving, social interaction, and self-organizing.
  • The limbic system. What we might call our “mammalian brain” controls our emotional states, our social responses related to survival, and processing memory.
  • The brainstem. What we might call our “reptilian brain” controls our baseline instinctive responses such as breathing and heart rate.

When a non-threatening experience happens—like attending a really great Halloween party at your child’s preschool—your frontal lobes likely stay online along with your limbic system and brainstem.

So, years, later, you may have a memory that has a narrative: “It was so fun! We all dressed up like ducks and did the Wiggle dance with all the other parents and kids in costume. I still think of that memory every time I smell fruit punch because my daughter spilled her sippy cup of it down the inside of my costume.”

And, indeed, each time you smell fruit punch, a smile comes to your face as your brain and body remember that time: You have a "feeling memory" and a narrative memory associated with it.

However, when a real (or perceived) threat occurs to us, our frontal lobes—the prefrontal cortex—may "shut down" as a self-protective measure while our brainstem and limbic system remain online, feeling and responding.

So the threat or trauma of that moment/experience isn’t then stored in the prefrontal cortex as a cohesive narrative (which would be possible if the prefrontal cortex—the thinking, wordy, higher-cognitive-function region of the brain still had primacy); instead, that experience is stored as a set of feeling and somatic responses lacking a cohesive narrative.

In other words, your body will remember the experience with sensations, not words.

This means that, after the threat passes—perhaps very long after the threat passes—you can be going about your life until perhaps some confluence of events and circumstances “reminds” your amygdala of the long-ago threat despite the content and context being radically different.

As trauma psychotherapist Janina Fisher states in her excellent resource, "The Living Legacy of Trauma" flipchart, "We remember trauma with our feelings and our bodies."

In other words, you may not have concrete memories of the trauma, but you can have strong somatic and emotional arousal, recall, and trigger responses to unconscious and conscious reminders of your traumatic experiences.

The American Psychological Association describes this phenomenon as "emotional memory" but in my work with trauma clients, I've come to call this kind of response a "feeling memory."

"Feeling memories" can be destabilizing and scary, and feel completely random when you can’t connect them to anything you concretely remember. And they can come out of nowhere with seemingly “ordinary” events as we move through our days and years.

For instance:

  • A woman feels intense queasiness when hearing her husband take his leather belt out of the loops of his jeans. Despite him being a kind man who never struck anyone, the sound of the leather being pulled out of jean loops makes her sick to her stomach.
  • A man, recently returned from deployment, visits Costco on a Saturday morning and starts to have a panic attack in the aisles of nuts and protein bars.
  • An otherwise vibrant woman falls into a deep depression when the California wildfire season arrives and she has to cancel social plans and stay inside several weeks in a row.

In each of these cases, the individual experiencing these feeling memories may feel “crazy” for having such strong responses to seemingly innocuous events—events that don’t seem to threaten their life and well-being and yet still somehow evoke large responses.

But none of these people are “crazy”—a term I would never actually use anyway. They’re having feeling memories of traumatic events that they narratively can’t recall.

  • The woman who gets queasy hearing the sound of the belt has blocked out childhood memories of her alcoholic father whipping her older brother with his leather belt and being made to watch the whipping as her own punishment. Cognitively she can’t clearly recall those memories, but her body remembers and has a strong response to the very sound of a leather belt leaving jean loops no matter who the individual wearing them is.
  • The man is experiencing panic attacks are a result of the somatic memories of being surrounded by chaos and feeling stuck, something he experienced while serving in the military which is somewhat mimicked in the frantic aisles of Costco on a Saturday morning.
  • The body of the woman who falls into a deep depression around wildfire season time is implicitly remembering other times in her early life when she would have to cancel plans and be trapped inside with her suicidal, personality-disordered mother, with freedoms limited and the sense that danger was everywhere.

If you see yourself in any of these examples, you, too, may be experiencing “feeling memories” that seemed to make no sense. I would reiterate the title of this post: You’re not crazy.

How do we heal and overcome trauma-informed feeling memories?

Now, the very important question: How do you heal and overcome feeling memories? A good trauma therapist will work from the stabilization model and, as part of the first phase of this work, help you help your brain understand that you are safe in the here and now and that the past is over, despite the unconscious triggering.

We therapists can help you activate your prefrontal cortex so that you can observe your trigger and your feeling memory, label your emotions as memory, and help your limbic system understand that you’re safe and not in danger.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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