“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Trauma is not…
Although, if left unresolved, it can result in any or all of these! I’m going to give you the simple explanation of trauma, and then I’ll unpack it.
Normally, all our senses, the five we were taught in school and the many, many others that we don’t normally attend to, all feed pretty directly into our amygdala. The amygdala compares this new sensory experience with our prior sensory/emotional memories and tells us how to feel about what’s happening right now. We know the amygdala turns on our fight or flight response. It does this whenever new experience matches a prior experience associated with fear. This occurs by degrees, and as it does, it progressively shuts down bodily functions that are important, but not needed for survival in this moment.
We also know that the amygdala is in continual conversation with the hippocampus to form conscious memories of what we experience. Together they weave the narrative of our lives. In response to traumatic memories, that is, extreme fight or flight responses, one of the last things shut down by the body is the hippocampus. In extreme stress, it goes dark and stops talking to the amygdala. This is confirmed by pet scans of the brain. This means that gaps are created in our conscious memory of events. They may be quite short, but they are still gaps.
When this happens, there are sensory/emotive memories in the amygdala that have no anchor to a conscious memory. When they are triggered by experiencing anything associated with the original event, it’s as if that event is happening right now instead of in the past, and because it was never fully processed into memory, we can’t think logically about it. The amygdala is in charge and is trying to save our lives. Unfortunately, what it’s responding to isn’t actually happening right now. Something else is. So our emotions, and actions are inappropriate and out of place in the moment. Our conscious mind, not liking disorder, will make up a story to explain this, usually blaming someone else who’s also present in the moment. We buy it because we have no choice. We have only one brain and it’s busy telling us a story it just made up. While we may have no choice but to re-experience a traumatic event, we often unconsciously choose to experience it from the less painful standpoint of the perpetrator, rather than the victim.
If we deliberately re-experience the event over and over, knowing we are now safe, the hippocampus engages and fully processes the experience into conscious memory. Then it’s fine. Not traumatic. Just something we remember. We can think about it and we can make conscious choices.
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
- Albert Einstein
So trauma is not…
If left unresolved, it can and often does result in any or all of these!
To understand this, it’s important to look at what we call ‘trauma’ actually is. Trauma is a sensory memory of an experience that has never been fully processed by the brain into memory. This has, in the past, always been described in psychological terms as “repression.” The implication being that it pertained to something that we didn’t want to face, or couldn’t face, and so we “repressed” it. There’s an implicit suggestion of avoidance there and even if we acknowledge that this ‘repression’ is neither conscious nor voluntary, there is lurking in this concept an idea of weakness or incapacity. Little wonder that many find admitting to having been traumatized is stigmatizing.
One reason for this is that most of us, even psychiatrists and psychologists, are inherently suspicious of psychology. It’s the study of the mind, as opposed to the brain. We don’t really know what the mind is and we don’t all agree that it’s even located in the brain. In any case, we can’t directly observe it. We can’t isolate variables, or often even identify them. We can’t produce replicable experimental results. When we look at the root of “psychiatry” and “psychology,” we find they are derived from the Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche. We are in even more disagreement about the nature, or even the existence of the soul.
Naturally such a discipline has to be suspect in the world of empirical sciences. Indeed it is. For example, Carl Jung (one of the founding luminaries in psychiatry) and Wolfgang Pauli (nobel prize winning physicist) collaborated for ten years on what they speculated was an energetic connection between quantum physics and the unseen world of the psyche, they referred to this as Undus Mundus, or One World. They were both preeminent in their fields, but Pauli was always embarrassed by his association with Jung, and would be teased about it by fellow physicists, because psychiatry wasn’t a “real” science.
We’ve learned a great deal about the brain in recent years and brain imaging has allowed the specific examination of how some ‘psychological’ processes operate biologically. We can now speculate, I believe rather productively, on the function of these processes. So let me offer a slightly different explanation for how traumatic memories are formed, and the useful function that underlies this process, from a biological rather than psychological perspective.
First we need to look at a simplified view of how ordinary memories are formed. There are two principal parts of the brain involved in this process. The amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdalae are two almond shaped lobes in the central brain. They are immediately adjacent to and articulate with the hippocampi, which are larger lobes shaped like seahorses(which is the root from which their name is derived.)
The amygdalae are the first parts of the brain to gain access to experience. All of our senses feed immediately into the amygdalae, some with minor pre-processing, but others, like our sense of smell, quite directly. The amygdalae store sensory memory of all our prior experience.
When I say ‘senses’ you’re probably thinking about the five you learned about in elementary school. But there are many more than five, and no, I’m not talking about a paranormal ‘sixth sense,’ but about specific senses for which we have specific types of receptors in our nervous system. Proprioception, for one, which enables us to be aware of the position of our body, limbs, etc. in space. Nociception, which creates the protective sensation of pain. Thermoception which enables us to detect the temperature of our environment and has separate sensors for reading our internal and external temperatures such that we are able to maintain our body temperature in the narrow range where its necessary chemistry can occur. There are the golgi tendon organs and muscle spindle cells that detect both the amount and type of stretch in individual muscles in order to respond appropriately to prevent injury. There are the mechanisms in the inner ear that detect balance and acceleration. Mechanoreceptors, which detect pressure. These are all quite distinct and well understood. There are other mechanisms, some less well understood, such as ‘mirror’ neurons, which fire in the brain in response to observing someone else performing an action, in precisely the way they would fire if one were performing the act themselves. Experiments have shown that these neurons also allow us to predict in a limited way what the observed person will do next. So when I talk about sensory information coming into the amygdala, I’m talking about a much broader palette than simply sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. This is important because sensations you normally aren’t aware of and couldn’t describe if you tried, can be associated with, and trigger, memories and emotions. Thus a particular sensation of acceleration, for example, might trigger the emotional memory of a beating when you were forcibly pushed.
The amygdala also stores the emotional states associated with those memories. They continually match our incoming sensory experience with our sensory memories and tell us how we should feel about what is happening right now. Some of this emotional pairing is a result of experience, and some is genetic. You don’t need to have ever encountered a tiger to feel your heart pounding when you come face to face with one. You don’t need to have fallen from a building to cling tightly to the railing when you look from a 20th floor balcony.
These incoming raw sensory experiences are stored as “implicit” memory. They can be triggered by re-encountering similar circumstances, but unless anchored to a conscious memory, they can’t be voluntarily retrieved or thought about.
In making this association of past sensory/emotive states with the current sensory environment, the amygdala also accesses fully processed memories linked to the prior sensory memories. This is known as ‘state dependent’ or ‘context dependent’ memory. In this way our declarative memories are prioritized with all memories associated with a sensory match jumping to the front of the line. This way we quickly remember those things that were relevant the last time we were experiencing a similar state. This is a great efficiency. Researchers have found that subjects taught a particular procedure while drunk could not remember it while sober, but when drunk again, recalled it perfectly. Likewise, divers who do repair work underwater, learn their craft in the water because if they are taught on dry land, they don’t remember it as well when submerged. So, if you’re enrolled in a class and the exams are given in the same class as the lectures, you’re apt to find that during exams you remember the lecture material you heard in the same room better than you remember the studying you did late at night in your bed back at the dorm.
Normal or Ordinary Memory
Normally, all this incoming sensory information, and all their connections to past similar experiences, is passed along directly to the adjacent hippocampus, and together the amygdala and hippocampus work to make sense of the new experience, connecting it with prior experiences and what we thought and felt about those experiences. It places the memory in the past, as part of a sequence of memories, with some events occurring before it, and newer experiences being filed afterward. When we subsequently remember it, it fits into a particular location in the running narrative of our lives, a place in the past, a place other than now. It may convert our thoughts about it into language, abstracting and flattening much of the information into a highly abbreviated, less detailed, conscious memory. It is this memory that we call “declarative” memory. It is conscious. As such, we can choose to think about it, we have some control over how we feel about it, and we have nearly complete control of how we choose to act or respond to it. That’s what consciousness is: awareness and control. This is how ordinary memory is created.
It’s worth noting that the hippocampus continues to work with a declarative, conscious memory for up to ten years after it is originally processed before assigning it a place in the neocortex as a long-term memory. While not directly relevant to the process of creating or resolving traumatic memory, it’s useful to understand that while the hippocampus has control of the memory, each time it is recalled, it is potentially subject to change. Why would a memory change? Well, our brains heavily favor consistency. We aren’t comfortable with things that don’t make sense or conflict with our prior, predominant experience or our beliefs. So, our brains edit them. Automatically. Without our conscious knowledge. So, not only is your memory unreliable, but you are very unlikely to remember, for long, any inconsistencies that would lead you to suspect that it was unreliable. Likewise, memories of traumatic events tend to become more accurate with time, as the gaps in conscious memory are retrieved and processed by the hippocampus and the emotional charge that triggers the dissociation diminishes.
Thus the assumption by law enforcement and the courts that the statement taken right after the accident, the robbery, the rape, are the most valid is actually 180 degrees wrong. The person remembering details months later, or remembering them differently when the event goes to trial, is not necessarily lying. Nor were they lying when they made their first statement. This is just a feature of human memory. These are some of the reasons why eyewitness testimony is some of the least reliable evidence admitted, and why we so often find it refuted by scientifically empirical evidence, like DNA.
Returning to the matching process the amygdala uses to assign feelings to our experience, the amygdala is particularly scanning for fear, or the feeling of being unsafe. The amygdala assigns a special urgency to any sensory match that triggers a memory connected with fear. This is because the amygdala’s most important duty is to keep us alive. If it finds such a match, it triggers the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (H-P-A) axis and activates the sympathetic nervous system. This overrides other brain functions in the interest of survival. This is called “amygdala hijack.” It is a normal and essential response from one of the most sophisticated and important parts of our brain. The fact that you are alive, and that your parents, grandparents and all your ancestors lived long enough to reproduce, is testimony to how astoundingly effective and sophisticated the amygdala is.
During an amygdala hijack, or activation of the sympathetic nervous system (also known as the fight, flight, freeze or faint response) non-essential systems of the body are shut down to divert resources to survival. These include very important life support systems, such as normal breathing, digestion, the immune system and our body’s repair mechanisms. These are essential, but not necessarily in that precise moment in relation to the danger we are facing. We can breathe normally, eat, fight off infection and regenerate cells later when we aren’t staring down the barrel of a gun that’s getting ready to render those functions irrelevant. Most of these stressful experiences are also then modulated through the hippocampus to create declarative memory. Most. But both the relaxation and stress responses engage by degrees, as needed. There are times when you are extremely relaxed and may experience profound altered states and healing. There are also times when you are in an extreme stress response responding as if to an immediate threat to your survival.
In such times of extreme stress, there is one additional non-essential resource that is turned off. The hippocampus. We could think of that as repression, as a protective response designed to suppress a painful memory, or we can look at it like the rest of the sympathetic nervous system response, as a diversion of resources. The amygdala can probably function faster and more responsively, at a time where fractions of a second may determine survival, if it isn’t having a conversation with the hippocampus about what it all means.
Think of this as two people standing on a corner having a lovely philosophical discussion about the meaning of life. If gunfire were to suddenly ring out and chips of pavement started flying, the conversation would stop and running would commence immediately. The conversation can be finished later, when sense can be made, even of the gunfire.
When this happens, when the conversation between the hippocampus and amygdala stops, a powerful emotive/sensory memory exists in the amygdala without any connection to a conscious declarative memory. This makes it impossible to think clearly or completely about the event. It also leaves it in a part of the brain where everything is happening now. There is no past or future in the amygdala. It’s designed to continually monitor the present, the now. This is how a traumatic memory is formed.
Trauma is subjective and personal
How much stress is necessary to switch off the hippocampus and create a conscious memory gap, or leave an unconnected sensory/emotive memory? That depends. Different people cope differently when confronted with different situations. Things an adult may not find traumatic often traumatize children. A person’s experience may enable them to cope with some things better than someone with no similar experience. There are circumstances known as ‘pre-trauma vulnerabilities’ that can help us understand the differences in a person’s response. Yet, if a person has successfully experienced and coped with these ‘pre-trauma vulnerabilities’ they are often less likely to be traumatized in the future. The truth is, it doesn’t matter. What traumatizes you, traumatizes you. Period. You can’t rationalize it away and it absolutely will not follow any pre-set rules. It is completely pointless to consider it in terms of weakness or strength, right or wrong.
Unresolved Traumatic Memory
If we have a conscious declarative memory (a fully processed memory) associated with the sensory memory that triggered the fear, then our pre-frontal cortex can consciously decide to override the amygdala, if in fact the sympathetic nervous system is even triggered at all by the memory. But if the sensory memory is not bound to a conscious memory, if it remained only partially processed, then we may not even consciously know we’ve been triggered or why. Under these circumstances, the responses of the amygdala are given full priority and we have little chance of exercising conscious control over them. Often we don’t know why we are reacting the way we are, or why we’ve felt or done what we have. As our brain abhors a vacuum, or a gap in logic, it will speculate or invent a reason or story about why we felt or acted as we did, often blaming whoever may be handy in the moment.
Another feature of this sort of memory is that it tends to become cumulative, like a snowball rolling downhill. This is called re-associating. A particular smell may have triggered the feeling of fear, having been present at an early time when we felt fear. But in the present, during the triggering event, there may be additional sounds, smells or other sensations. These, too, will become connected to the feeling of fear via the now activated unresolved traumatic event. This means, for example, that a sound that wasn’t present during the original ‘danger’ but that was present during an otherwise safe time when that memory was triggered, now has the ability to trigger the original sensory memory of danger or fear, even though it wasn’t present at the time, or at any time when actual danger was at risk.
For example, a combat veteran may have traumatic memory associated with the sound of gunfire. Later, a roofing company working next door may be using a nail gun. The loud noises trigger the memory, in the form of an anxiety reaction. The veteran doesn’t know perhaps why they feel anxious, but the emotional/sensory memory is active. During this time, the pungent smell of roofing tar is also present, even though it had nothing to do with the veteran’s combat experience, it is now associated with the anxiety of the original event. Now the smell of tar, even without the noise, triggers the anxiety. In another example, from an actual case, a woman was experiencing strong feelings of anger and distrust surrounding her relationship with her boss. One day she realized that the painting over his desk was the same picture that hung in her childhood home where her father frequently beat her mother. Once she was conscious of this connection, her boss no longer brought up those feelings in her. He had become associated, indirectly with the painting and the feelings it triggered.
As time goes on and the event is triggered in various different circumstances, more and more experiences have the potential to re-trigger it. Essentially, the feeling of fear begins to spread to more and more of the experiences a person has in the normal course of their life. The more frequently a person does something, is somewhere, or experiences something in their lives, the more likely it is to be present during a triggering of a past trauma, and thereby become connected to it. Thus over long periods of time, and many re-triggers of an event, much of a person’s daily experience can become a trigger and the feeling of being unsafe may become pervasive, becoming the dominant feeling in their lives. This we call anxiety.
Further, the sympathetic nervous system is very demanding of energy and resources. It makes us hyper alert and hyper vigilant. It keeps our muscles tensed and ready for action. It is designed to be activated only for very short periods and then, only infrequently. Yet it is said that the average person’s sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, is triggered an average of 50 times a day. For those who are lonely or experiencing significant problems in their lives, it can easily exceed 100 times a day. As stress becomes our dominant state, our bodies are damaged and our energy depleted. This we come to know as depression.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
As we experience more frequent and more severe triggers of past events that seem to bear no rational relation to events going on in the present, our responses and behaviors appear out of place to others and ourselves. This is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
The line between victim and perpetrator is more slender than most of us imagine. It is frequently crossed. The child of an alcoholic who grows up swearing they will never become like their mother, may still end up stifling their emotional pain with drink. The boy viciously beaten by his parents, who then suffers fits of rage, lashing out at his wife and children. This is not as perplexing as it seems. Remember that significant parts of the traumatic memories remain unconscious. They are triggered involuntarily. When this happens, one can re-experience the very painful hurt and helplessness, or the slightly less painful rage of the perpetrator. One does not have to be a ‘bad’ person for this to happen. The fact that they are perpetrating, against all their conscious desires, in spite of their life experience (when in fact we know it is because of that life experience) and against their values and wishes, is deeply traumatic itself, further complicating their trauma history. There are actually four flows, or causal directions that traumatizing events can take: Those things that happened or were done to us, those things we have witnessed done to others, those things we have done to others and those things we have done to ourselves.
So it should not be surprising that a police officer, well liked by his peers and by the community, might after years of witnessing horrific trauma with full control and composure, suddenly become triggered during a routine traffic stop and empty his Glock into an unarmed driver. Less surprising still if the officer had frequently displayed poor control or judgment, had suffered severe trauma as a child, which may have even motivated him to become a cop, to be the ‘good guy.’ Our wounds often motivate and energize us, but unless we heal them, we can’t unlock their gifts and they can turn on us viciously and unexpectedly.
The processing of these traumatic memories can be completed, leaving them as ordinary, conscious, declarative memories. Even if many years or even many decades have passed since the event.
There are several ways to do this. Sometimes we do it quickly and spontaneously. We get into a car accident, for example. We have a traumatic response. Then we spontaneously tell the story of what happened over and over to our family and friends. They listen supportively. We review our experience over and over. During these repetitions, it is available to the hippocampus, which is not shut down, because we realize we are now safe or at least not in immediate danger. As we repeat the story, more and more of it is processed into memory, connected to other memories, assigned a place in our past, and the gaps are filled in by re-experiencing the original sensory memory, until we have all the details in conscious memory. Such events do not result in PTSD, depression or anxiety, we are said to have ‘coped’ with them, as indeed we have.
But what if there are reasons we can’t do this. Perhaps we have no one safe to talk to, or no one who will listen, or the perpetrator is the only person we could tell, or we can’t recall enough of the details to get started, or the memory is so raw that we recoil from it, being unwilling to remember any part of it, much less talk about it. These memories continue as traumatic memories and can result in anxiety, depression, or PTSD. They can erode our physical health and our immune response. They can interfere with our ability to work. They can interfere with our relationships. They can lead us into high risk behaviors to avoid or stifle the feelings they bring up, or create a host of other adaptive responses that deal with our present moment discomfort, but create difficulties for us in the long run. As time goes on, they can become harder and harder to access and completely process. Several approaches exist for dealing with these. EMDR, CBT, Breathwork, Yoga, Bodywork can all help for various reasons.
Our experience is that the fastest and most thorough for integrating Traumatic Memory is Traumatic Incident Reduction. This is because it goes directly to the matter of retrieving the partially processed memory and completing the processing in a single untimed session. It begins by creating a very safe space, under defined rules and a specific discipline for facilitating the session, revisits the incident and in a single session repeatedly reviews it until it processes completely. Then it’s done. It is a memory like other memories in that it no longer has hidden parts and will no longer elicit a response.
Even people with complex trauma histories and multiple traumatic events can resolve their lifetime traumatic incident network within an average of 20-25 hours, not sessions, hours. Some sessions may run two or more hours. Frequently an individual will resolve their most significant and impactful traumatic events within the first two or three sessions and immediately begin to experience a significant reduction or elimination of symptoms.
A traumatic memory is like a burglar alarm at a bank. It serves an essential protective purpose in an emergency. But like a burglar alarm, when the emergency is passed and the robbers are in handcuffs, if it continues to go off randomly, it begins to interfere with normal banking, until customers stop coming, tellers quit and banking grinds to a halt. The answer is simply to reset the alarm as quickly after the event as possible, but in any case, to just reset it. Then everything is back to normal. Viewed this way, traumatic events are not pathological, they aren’t unusual, or stigmatizing, or in any way a defect. They are a fact of life and something most everyone can expect to experience to one extent or another. Promptly recognizing such an event and resolving it keeps it from interfering with the business of life. But even if it has been a while since it occurred and it has already evolved into a problem or set of life problems, resolving the unprocessed traumatic memory immediately begins to set things right, and very quickly.