Why You Can’t Remember Traumatic Events

May 2, 2012

Let me get the scientific part out of the way first. To understand the rest of this article, I need to define three things:

  1. Traumatic Event: Any happening which effects major change in our emotional, physical and memory functions
  2. Glucocorticoids: Substances produced during trauma that help our brain cope with the overwhelming nature of the event
  3. Hippocampus: The central core of our memory system that allows us to take events and store them in long-term memory.

Armed with those definitions, let me walk you through recent discoveries with memory research. In about a dozen studies (but most recently in this one by Benno Roozendaal et al), it has been shown that when we have a traumatic event in our lives, the body produces major amounts of glucocorticoids. This helps to calm us down so we can cope. It also gives us that “numb” feeling that many people describe during stress. But glucocorticoids have a transverse effect. They destroy neurons in the Hippocampus. This means that the more stress we are under, the less we will be able to store the traumatic event in long-term memory. This partially explains how some people who endured years of trauma through abuse have very little memory of the entire season of events.

However, there is one other effect of Glucocorticoids. They enhance the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system helps us store our emotional reactions in events. Our brains can actually store our emotional output during a traumatic event much more completely than we can store the facts of the event.

The implication of these two findings is huge for TPM (Theophostic Management) counseling. TPM counseling accesses emotional reactions in the present time and follows them back to their original memory. Since emotions are actually heightened during trauma, they are a more accurate way to access traumatic memories than any other method.

I consider this a true endorsement for TPM and EMDR approaches to emotional and spiritual well-being. Each of these counseling methods relies on triggered emotions to go back to false beliefs and decisions that are still affecting our lives from those trauma.


One comment

  1. I witnessed the murder of my mother and sister when I was five. When I woke up the next day I had no memory of the events. I was unable to tell the police any thing. I never received any counseling at the time. My family never spoke of my mother or sister. They acted as though they never existed.

    When I was fifteen I came across some news paper clippings in my dad’s desk. These clippings were about Mon and sister’s murder and also about the trail of the man who murdered them. Reading the events didn’t trigger any memories . When I got to the picture of the killer all my memories came back to me. The news articles had not gone into how he got into our home nor did it describe how he killed them. So I knew the memories I was having were my own. I also knew how I had hid when they were being killed.

    I don’t know how often seeing a picture can bring back suppress memories.

    There was another affect remembering had on me. I suddenly had a fear of someone braking into my home. I tryed to talk to my family about these things and they were unwilling to discuss. And the other effect was because I had unlocked the window the killer had entered, it was my fault my mother and sister had been killed.
    When I had gotten old enough to own firearms I kept one on my person at all times and I still do.
    I carried guilt with me into my mid 30s. Twenty years of a personal self made hell. It manifest as a deep constant sadness. It was not depression it was sadness and guilt. A friend made an observation. She said I had the saddest puppy dog eyes. I had never knew people could see my sadness. That’s when I saught professional help.

    This was a very good decision. I was lucky to find a very good psychologist who helped me update unrealistic childhood thoughts into mature adult thoughts. I was able to let go of my guilty thoughts regarding surviving and the guilt about it being my fault for leaving a window unlocked.

    Life should not be filled with with guilt or sadness. There are people out there who can help those of us who have been threw traumatic experiences.

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