Why You Can’t Remember Traumatic Events Clearly

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

Traumatic Event: Any happening which effects major change in our emotional, physical and memory functions

Glucocorticoids: Substances produced during trauma that help our brain cope with the overwhelming nature of the event

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 MPT (Memory Processing Therapy) counseling. MPT 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 MPT 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.

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