Bad memories have the hold they do on us because they’re entwined with our limbic system.
They contain information that our brains consider vital to the fight-or-flight response. Our brains pay more attention to some memories than others, because they (our brains) figure that if we’re to avoid danger, we need to pay attention to the stuff encoded in those memories.
Normally, memories fade. No matter how hard we try to hold on to most memories, they become hazy over time. The details get fuzzy.
The reason why certain memories don’t fade is because our brains are trying to keep us safe. Our brains figure that if we forget the details of those memories— if we let them become hazy, like normal memories tend to become— then we might also forget the warning signals that those memories have stored up in them.
As with all post traumatic symptoms, memory symptoms are just our brains trying to do us a solid. They’re trying to keep us safe, to protect us.
They think if we keep those memories at the top of mind— if we don’t let them fade— then we can have all that valuable information about what situations are dangerous and should be avoided right at our fingertips.
The problem is, our brains aren’t great at discriminating the parts of a memory that are and aren’t valuable for that purpose.
In trying to keep us safe by keeping those traumatic memories easily accessible, our brains try to keep EVERY LITTLE DETAIL as vivid as possible.
Then, in a further attempt to be helpful, our brains make us hypervigilant to the sensory details of those memories, which is why these sensory cues become “triggers” to flashbacks.
All a flashback is, is an intense, immersive memory that usually gets triggered by something in the environment that our brain associates with a threat. It’s as if our brain detects something it associates with a bad memory, and tries to get your attention to the tune of, “HEY, REMEMBER THAT BAD THING? IF YOU DON’T HERE’S AN IMMERSIVE, BLOW BY BLOW ACCOUNT OF THAT THING! REMEMBER?!?”
One of the goals of therapy is to put bad and traumatic memories back into the ballpark of normal memories— where they can be allowed to fade and get hazy.
This can be done…but first of all we need to convince our brains that they no longer need to hang on to those memories. We have to develop confidence that we have the skills and tools to function safely in the here and now. We have to become certain that we can, and will, recognize threats and act appropriately— not overreact or underreact.
In other words, we have to learn to use our damn skills.
The skill most important to getting out of flashback is called grounding.
All grounding means is to reestablish firm contact with the present moment. The present time, our present surroundings, our present context.
One of the reasons why flashbacks are so terrifying is because they are immersive. Since traumatic memories don’t fade like non-traumatic memories, when we reexperience those memories, they’re much more vivid than normal memories. It’s not uncommon for people to lose touch with where and when they are when they’re in the grip of a flashback— in that moment, they truly think they’re “back there, back then” when the danger was very real and present.
Grounding skills are any skills that allow you to reestablish touch with the present moment.
Grounding is about giving yourself assurance and evidence that you are in the here-and-now, not the there-and-then.
Open your eyes. (If you close your eyes during a flashback, you’re just providing a blank movie screen on which the memory can play.)
Identify three objects you see.
Identify three colors you see.
Ask yourself what the date and time is— and in the process of doing so, ask yourself how you would KNOW what the date and time is.
It seems like a simple set of skills, and it is. The reason it’s not easy to remember grounding skills in the moment is because your fight/flight/freeze system has been activated, and you’re typically in a panic. The point of getting grounded is to rein that panic reaction in by convincing your brain that you are not, currently, in the kind of danger that you were back then.
Every intervention for treating trauma has its roots in convincing our brains that we’re safe in the present moment.
It is unreasonable to expect your brain to give up post traumatic symptoms unless you can make a convincing case that you are, in fact, safe in the present moment.
The good news is, you can regain control of your life from flashbacks.
If you work with your brain, not against it.
Subscribe to the Doc’s free weekly email newsletter and never miss a blog or social media post!
One thought on “Why memories hang on like they do.”
Another brilliant insight to the workings of the brain.