In this series, we’ve talked about big “T” and small “t” traumas; and I suggested that we’ve all experienced a trauma that has impacted us, whether or not we’ve named it as such.
Big “T” traumas: life-threatening events; combat, crimes like rape, kidnapping, and assault; and natural disasters like earthquakes, tornadoes, fires, tsunamis, and floods.
Small “t” traumas: distressing negative events we experience in our daily lives, that usually would not necessarily be considered “life-threatening,” but make us feel unsafe, unloved, without control or hope. They can be humiliations, failures, accidents, or losses of any kind and they leave us markedly different after the experience.
Here, in part four, we’ll discuss how traumatic experiences are encoded and stored differently in our brains than other non-traumatic events. Francine Shapiro explains it this way:
A number of neurobiologists and memory researchers point out that major traumas and other disturbing life experiences are stored in the wrong form of memory. Instead of being stored in “explicit” or “narrative” memory where they can be remembered without pain, they are stored in “implicit” or “non-declarative” memory where they hold the emotions and body sensations that were part of the initial event. Because these memories are not able to connect with other, more helpful information, they remain isolated from other life experiences in our memory networks.
(2004, p. xiv)
What does that actually mean?
When we experience something that our brain perceives as traumatic, our stress response is triggered, and stress hormones cortisol and norepinephrine start firing. We’re now in fight-flight-or-freeze, with a host of self-preserving, fear-based physiological responses kicking in. In addition to being stored with a special chemical stamp, traumatic memories are stored in the limbic system – the part of the brain that processes emotions and physiological sensations, but not language or speech.
This makes a lot of sense when we consider that sometimes, we can vividly recall disturbing feelings or images, but we don’t have a clear, cohesive narrative that goes along with the image or feeling. We can’t find the words to explain it to someone else. Some of these memories are emotionally painful in a way that registers in the region of the brain that senses physical pain. So, when we talk about a “broken heart” – it’s not just an emotional expression. There is often legitimate physical pain that accompanies trauma – even if it is not a physical trauma, per se (ie, a broken bone or a torn ligament). This is all very different than how the typical non-traumatic memory is encoded and stored.
By way of example, think of your favorite book or movie as a child. Got your answer? Okay, and how about your favorite food? And what’s your favorite scent?
Did you notice anything significant in your body as you recalled your answers? Any tightening in your chest, feel a hollow pit in your stomach, your legs start shaking, your fists tighten, your pulse quicken, your head pounding, an aching in your neck? No? Right! But these are the common responses in our bodies when we recall memories that were stored as traumas.
Written by: Mindy Pierce