Typically, when things are going as they should, our brain processes things a certain way: We observe something that is happening, receive any input or context about the situation, interpret what is happening based on the information we have, process, evaluate our options, plan, and act. For the most part, this happens pretty quickly—driving, walking in a crowd, ordering coffee, decide if we’re going to buy that new shirt or not.
When we experience something traumatic, the limbic system (the alarm system in our brain) lights up and notifies us that we’re in danger. It starts shutting down parts of the brain, such as the pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, to conserve energy in order to survive. This means that instead of the whole continuum, we only have the essentials—commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze.
It’s a shortcut that is pretty adaptive in the moment—for instance, if you were being attacked by a bear, the time that it takes to evaluate your options may very well be the difference between life and death.
If this happens on rare occasions, it continues to be helpful and keeps us safe, as in many instances of acute trauma. But if our alarm system is going off all of the time, as in the case of chronic trauma, the short cut becomes the main road. Now, what was once adaptive is problematic. We are responding to daily situations as if they are life or death experiences, which continues to create a cycle of chaos in our lives.
Due to the process described above, traumatic events are stored in different parts of the brain than regular memories, and commonly with damaged time stamps. Often, the memories didn’t get filed as things of the past, and therefore register as if they are still occurring, which can be incredibly disruptive to daily living.
Not only are they stored in a different location, they are recorded differently as well. Instead of a beginning, middle, and end, as we’d have if we were calm and regulated with all of our brain online, traumatic memories are frequently recorded through our senses—coming to mind through pictures, sounds, body sensations, or emotions.
Understanding the way traumatic memory is processed and stored, compared to typical memories is helpful as we consider the impact of trauma, and how to move forward toward healing.