How Traumatic Memories are Different from Everyday Memories (and why it matters for first responders)

Just let it go … get over it … stop living in the past …it could have been so much worse … don’t be so soft, so weak … it’s time to forget about it and move on ….

These are some of the messages that people who’ve experienced a traumatic event may give themselves. Sometimes, concerned co-workers, friends, or family may communicate those same messages to those who’ve experienced trauma.

Whether it comes from self-talk or from someone else just trying to help, the implication is the same: recovering from psychological trauma is an act of willpower.

Decide to be OK, and magically you’ll be OK.

All you need to do is toughen up.

Can’t stop thinking about that terrible thing that happened? You’re just not trying hard enough.

Well-intended as these suggestions may be, they are all misguided.

Self-discipline, positive thinking and self-talk, and affirmations may work well when we’re establishing a new fitness routine, preparing for a job interview, or taking a challenging class.

Effortlessly we can forget someone’s name, where we left our car keys, or our email account password. Memory hacks abound to help us remember those everyday details—mnemonic devices, repetition, images and visualizations, and so on.

Many of us can, with determination and consistency and some knowledge of popular science, coax our brains to do as we wish.

But if someone is experiencing flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares as a result of a psychologically traumatic event, no amount of the “mind over matter” approach will stop or even reduce the frequency or intensity of those symptoms.

Why are memories of traumatic events so stubborn?

Traumatic memories are different from everyday memories, such as those of meeting a friend for dinner or attending a football game.

Our brains store memory information in two regions: implicit memory and explicit memory. The implicit memory region stores language and facts pertaining to the memory – for example, the stadium where the football game was played, which teams competed, and the final score. The explicit memory region stores the emotions related to the memory – perhaps excitement, suspense, frustration when a player fumbled the ball, disappointment or even anger if your team lost, or joy if your team won.

The brains of people without post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) store memories of traumatic events in both the implicit (facts and language) and explicit (emotion) memory regions of the brain. This allows them to recall the memory as a story–with language and facts to describe the event, they have a sense of control over the memory’s meaning for them.

In people with PTSD, the memory of the event is stored only in the explicit (emotional) memory region, but not in the implicit (facts and language) memory region. This difference means people with PTSD have a harder time creating a narrative – a story – about the event. For them, remembering the traumatic event is less like recalling it and more like reliving it—and all of the feelings and sensations they felt during the event—over and over again. Not only that, but because the memory didn’t get sufficiently stored in the “facts and language” region of the brain, the person has a harder time making sense of it, which is crucial to recovery.

It is important to note that the brain automatically decides what to do with the memory of a particular experience—that is, where and how to store it. The process cannot be controlled or stopped or changed by the person. The amygdala, a region of the brain instrumental in instantly identifying threats and determining the response most likely to result in survival, is key in that process.

To complicate matters, because the memory is stored only in the “emotions” region of the brain, almost any sensation, sight, smell, sound, or taste associated with the traumatic experience can trigger memories of it, including “body memories”, powerful re-experiences of the physical sensations of a traumatic event. Denying the memory or the event itself can intensify these reactions.

How can a person overcome the power of traumatic memories?

The good news is that a traumatic memory does not have to remain a traumatic memory. With proper processing through therapy with a qualified professional, most traumatic memories can be transformed into everyday memories, defusing them of their ability to cause troubling emotions and symptoms.

According to the National Center for PTSD, the following forms of therapy demonstrate the strongest evidence for treating trauma and PTSD:

• Prolonged Exposure (PE)
• Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
• Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Of course, a type of therapy that works well for one person may not work for another. Fortunately, there are many different therapeutic methods from which to choose. This webpage published by the National Center for PTSD provides information about finding a therapist or counselor for both nonveterans and veterans:

Find a Therapist (National Center for PTSD)

What can I do now to help myself or someone close to me?

The following activities have been proven to benefit those who’ve experienced trauma and those with PTSD:

Yoga – A regular yoga practice can improve quality of sleep and calm anxiety. A study of military veterans diagnosed with PTSD showed that practicing breathing-based yoga reduced PTSD symptoms not only immediately following the study, but up to a year later.

Deep breathing – Deep, or “diaphragmatic” breathing, is frequently used as part of treatment protocols for PTSD because it elicits the “relaxation response”.

Aerobic exercise – Cycling, moderate-to-brisk walking, moderate jogging, and aerobic activity combined with resistance training and yoga have all been shown to reduce PTSD symptoms.

For first responders, exposure to potentially traumatic events comes with the job. Most men and women working in the field accept this hazard as a trade-off for the fulfillment and satisfaction they gain from helping, protecting, and defending others. Many of us—especially first responders, for whom the physical and mental ruggedness necessary to do their jobs often is a source of pride—would like to believe we’re always in control, especially in the face of the kinds of distressing events that first responders routinely witness and experience. Yet when it comes to the memories of such events, the science is clear: our brains control whether a memory becomes a traumatic one.

That’s why it’s crucial for first response organizations to have in place sound practices, procedures, and resources to help their teams cope with stress and trauma.

Envisage Technologies—the company that produces the Acadis Readiness Suite and FirstForward—also produces free resources to help first responders manage stress and trauma:

• Click here to access a free webinar (recorded August 5, 2020), “Suicide Prevention”.

• For a free poster on first responder stress and mental health, click here.

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