Rich Silvestri

Understanding Traumatic Memory

Perhaps the most debilitating psychological symptoms experienced by those who suffer from PTSD are the incessant recollections they have of their traumas. Sufferers report that they are terrifying, often occur spontaneously and seemingly without any redeeming purposes. Oddly enough then, I was very surprised to discover that traumatic memories served a variety of other purposes including some that were extremely important for your survival. Traumatic memories are typically associated with recollections of traumatic experiences. But nature also uses the very same process to store the shots we take when we’re on vacation or when we celebrate special events in our lives. Moreover, the same circuitry is even used to help us identify our natural predispositions, interests and vocational predilections.

A traumatic memory is formed whenever there is a high concentration of adrenaline in our system. This typically occurs when we are in precarious situations, including near death experiences. But it also happens when we are on vacation, celebrating a special event, or on an amusement park ride. In each case, the memory that is forged at the time is etched into our neural networks rendering it essentially permanent. These are the memories that nature decided it wanted us to keep for the rest of our lives. This is why they are so difficult to discharge when they are associated with PTSD. In contrast, memories that are recorded and stored in our short and long term banks are formed by protein chains, which, over time, can decay or be interfered with if they are not reinforced periodically.

Determining whether a memory has been stored in a traumatic or a short or long term bank, is relatively easy. Imagine the first time you were exposed to something that you chose to do or use throughout your life, such as a hobby, say playing the guitar, or your vocational field. As you recall the initial memories of these events, try to determine if your recollections are primarily visual (… I was in first grade and my teacher let me play her guitar, and I remember being fascinated with how well she played and how much I wanted to be like her) or verbal (I don’t remember exactly, but sometime in grammar school I was introduced to the guitar. I tried several times later on to take it up but I never put the time in). Traumatic memories are invariable visually based, whereas verbal ones are typically either short or long term. As a result, if you review your visual memories, you will uncover all the experiences and times in your life that your brain decided were important enough to store more or less permanently. Similarly, these memories were probably formed when you were in a state of arousal – most likely when you were celebrating an important event, on a scary amusement car ride, or during one of your earliest encounters with something you were naturally predisposed to do.

Of greater importance, it may give you the insights needed to make the necessary changes in your circumstances or personality to avoid another near death experience.