How to Make Peace With a Trauma Memory
Telling the story can put a frame around the pain.
Posted January 6, 2023 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- Intrusive trauma memories pop up uninvited because of the way they’re stored in the nervous system.
- Telling our trauma story helps to put a protective narrative frame around the pain of trauma.
- Specific practices can provide the right conditions for the nervous system to heal.
Please note that this post describes medical trauma.
“Don’t let the kids come outside,” I implored my wife, as I quickly ducked my head inside our back door. “I think John is dead.” I had just arrived home from work and discovered my neighbor lying face down in his flower beds. He was unresponsive when I shook his shoulder and called his name, so I dialed 911.
As I ran back to John, the dispatcher connected me to medical personnel who told me to start chest compressions. It was an overwhelming emotional experience as I tended to my neighbor; I had said hello to him just that morning on my way to work as he walked his dog. I felt a strong urge to cry but forced it down as I focused on my task. A faraway part of me whispered, “This is going to stay with you.”
Soon, the ambulance arrived and the EMTs took over. John was still unresponsive when they lifted him onto a gurney and transferred him to the ambulance. When I called the hospital the next day they confirmed that he had been pronounced dead.
Overwhelmed by Memories
In the days and weeks that followed, I had typical trauma reactions: feeling on edge, difficulty sleeping, wanting to avoid thinking about what had happened, and intrusive memories of the event. Trauma memories often pop into our awareness uninvited because of the way they’re stored in the nervous system, which is different from other types of memories. Non-intrusive memories are a lot like mosaics; individual pieces of the memory are organized into a coherent whole. Each piece sits in relation to the pieces around it and contributes to an organized reflection of what we remember happening.
In contrast, intrusive traumatic memories tend to be fragmented, like the individual pieces that make up a mosaic. When something overwhelmingly stressful happens, the parts of the brain that give context and organization to the event—especially the hippocampus—don’t function as well. At the same time, activity is enhanced in the brain’s emotion centers, like the amygdala. The result is a snippet of the event here, another snippet there, rather than a unified story or narrative. And those individual pieces of the trauma memory are highly charged with painful emotion.
Shards of Memory
Individual pieces of the memory are like shards of broken glass, and they’re painful to touch—for good reason. Fragments of the trauma story have strong ties to the emotion centers in the brain, including the amygdala, which is central to our experience of fear, as well as the insula, which underlies our internal body awareness. Both of these brain areas are important for the body’s fight/flight/freeze stress response.
When one of these memory fragments pops into our minds, we tend to feel upsetting emotions like anger, sadness, helplessness, or fear. These intrusive memories often trigger physical sensations, like the memory I had of the chest compressions, and can be quite vivid—it can even seem like the traumatic event is happening all over again. What’s more, the shards can show up anytime because they aren’t bound in place like pieces in a mosaic. It feels instead like they have a life of their own.
Putting the Pieces Together
Mercifully, our trauma memories don’t have to stay in fractured form. They can become organized into a unified story that puts a protective narrative frame around the pain of trauma, like assembling a mosaic from individual pieces. The result will tell a story that’s less threatening and more manageable than the separate shards.
This process or organization isn’t something you have to conjure by yourself; your nervous system will do it for you, given the right conditions. The following practices are adapted from my book, Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Breathe and Let Go
Our nervous systems are on high alert after a trauma as they try to protect us from future threats; that heightened stress and emotion contribute to keeping our memories in fragmented form. Rapid, shallow breathing tends to prolong this stress response.
On the other hand, calming breaths dial down anxious arousal and turn on the parasympathetic nervous system—the antidote to our fight/flight/freeze response. Releasing tension and stress provides the ideal conditions for the brain to create new connections as it processes the trauma memory. Slow, deliberate breathing during meditation practice helped during my own recovery.
Spend three to five minutes each day taking full, easy breaths. Breathe in through the nose and exhale out the mouth, making the exhale about twice as long as the inhale (e.g., in for a count of three, out for a count of six). Try trauma expert James Gordon’s guided “Soft Belly Breathing” exercise.
It’s a natural reaction to want to isolate ourselves after a trauma, but relationships are excellent reminders of who we are and of what’s good and right in life—important pieces to include as your brain reorganizes the trauma memory. Make an effort to reach out to the people around you who can support you. Few things are more healing than loving, human presence.
Share Your Story
Trusted friends and family members can also offer the gift of listening to your trauma story. Scores of research studies have shown the power of simply telling the story of our traumatic experience. If you’re not able to talk with another person, even writing about a trauma has been shown to make it less upsetting and to facilitate our healing.
It’s helpful to go beyond simply reporting the facts of what happened; allow yourself to remember and describe your deeper experience at the time. What went through your mind? What were you feeling? What physical sensations did you notice? What details stand out now as you revisit the memory?
When I spoke with a beloved friend about the event, I told him the whole story of what had happened. The love and acceptance I felt as we spoke helped to release the tears I had held back on the day John died, bringing with them a cleansing flood of pent-up emotion.
Finally, look for opportunities to face reminders of the trauma, assuming they aren’t actually dangerous. For example, I had been avoiding looking at the spot where John had fallen because it brought back the painful reminder of my initial shock at discovering him. I realized I needed to confront that visual reminder instead of averting my eyes, which helped me to reclaim that piece of the story and to integrate it into my overall memory of that event.
My own recovery after traumatic events has paralleled the psychotherapy work I’ve done with scores of trauma survivors. In the end, the story of our trauma may not look beautiful, but it’s ours. Our emotions and attention are no longer held captive by the trauma memory, but belong to us again.
If you’re struggling with recovery from a trauma, consider talking with a trauma specialist who can help. Psychology Today has a searchable database of licensed therapists.
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Brewin, C. R., Gregory, J. D., Lipton, M., & Burgess, N. (2010). Intrusive images in psychological disorders: Characteristics, neural mechanisms, and treatment implications. Psychological Review, 117, 210-232.
Gillihan, S. J. (2022). Mindful cognitive behavioral therapy: A simple path to healing, hope, and peace. HarperOne.