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Understanding Childhood Trauma and Memory

Understanding Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma doesn’t end in childhood. Many survivors of childhood trauma experience continued effects of traumatic events into adulthood. A confusing and frustrating symptom for many is suppressing memories due to childhood trauma. Some survivors may carry negative feelings about their childhood but forget the “how” or “why” of a traumatic event. It’s the brain’s way of protecting you from these traumatic events.

Understanding Childhood Trauma

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) framework identifies potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood. These experiences can impact survivors into their adult life. It can affect their physical and mental health, ability to maintain relationships, and susceptibility to addiction

The 10 ACES are:

  1. Physical abuse
  2. Sexual abuse
  3. Verbal abuse
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. A family member who is depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
  7. A family member who is addicted to alcohol or another substance
  8. A family member who is in prison
  9. Witnessing abuse of a mother
  10. Losing a parent to separation, divorce, or death

Experiencing this kind of trauma can cause Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A common side effect of PTSD is the suppression of memories, which feels like memory loss. Many childhood trauma survivors experience this suppression by dissociating from the event. It’s a form of protection your mind employs as it jumps into survival mode.

Childhood Trauma and Memory

Memory suppression is the brain’s defense mechanism against psychological damage. When childhood trauma survivors repress these memories or dissociate from a traumatic event, it can take years of therapy to remember details.

Trauma doesn’t cause memory loss. It overwhelms the person’s psychological and physical system, which suppresses the memory from the person’s consciousness, according to Carmen Dominguez, Executive Clinical Director at Integrative Life Center.

“When an individual is exposed to a traumatic experience, the autonomic system goes into fight, flight, or freeze, and the experience and memory of the trauma is not fully processed,” Carmen said 

But not everyone responds to trauma the same way. Each nervous system has a unique response and reaction, Carmen stated.

“Trauma can cause problems in how the memory gets stored and recalled,” she said. 

Trauma overwhelms some people’s nervous systems, causing them to numb or dissociate. 

Numbing is when emotions detach from thoughts, behaviors, and memories. 

Dissociation severs connections among a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, and sense of identity. 

Numbing and dissociation can occur during severe stress or trauma as a protective strategy where the person incurs distortion of time, space, or identity, according to Carmen. She said: 

“People who have been subjected to shock or developmental trauma may have responded by detaching from a certain experience to survive. Human beings are wired for safety and connection. There is intelligence in these trauma responses.”  

Recognizing False Memories

After experiencing a traumatic event, the brain is vulnerable. It can attempt to fill the gaps in your memory by fabricating false memories. A false memory occurs when you have an apparent recollection of an event, but it didn’t actually occur how you remember it. 

False memories can greatly alter your perception of the event and prevent you from fully understanding your trauma. Working with a mental health professional can help uncover your true memory and remove the false memories. 

Why is it Essential to Recover These Experiences?

Remembering and accepting trauma is vital to healing. Survivors may maintain a distorted perception of traumatic events if they don’t process those memories. They can’t be fully present in their current lives because they haven’t processed the past. Carmen said:

“Presence is linked to happiness. It’s important to bring these unprocessed memories into awareness, so the person can see their current circumstances without distortions.” 

People can experience flashbacks when they haven’t processed trauma. It can make them feel like they’re reliving a traumatic event.

“Flashbacks exacerbate the feeling of unsafety, of the ongoing threat of danger,” Carmen explained. “Flashbacks are like symptoms of unprocessed trauma. If we consider the many ways unprocessed trauma is tucked away – often as fragments of the experiences – the person is left consumed with trying to avoid the trauma at all cost.”

Trying to avoid feeling or thinking about trauma can inhibit survivors from being happy. Carmen said:

“When we are in a state of survival, we aren’t able to be creative and explore our authentic aspirations and our unique competencies and gifts.”

Unprocessed trauma doesn’t just affect a person’s mind. They may experience physical symptoms or find difficulty living a normal life.

“Individuals who have suffered trauma have a distorted sense of the world and themselves,” Carmen said. “Trauma impacts us as a whole – our minds, bodies, behaviors, self-identity, spirits, relationships, and communities are affected. Because trauma impacts us holistically, we have to heal holistically.”

Treatment for Trauma

Recovering memories can take time and discipline. The first step is acknowledging the trauma so you can begin to reassociate with your feelings. A trained professional can guide you in recognizing your trauma and finding healing.

Trauma-focused therapy addresses the traumatic events you experienced and helps to overcome the negative feelings. A mental health professional can help you understand your “fight or flight” responses and find healthy coping mechanisms. They can also help you recall memories, accept the past, and rebuild trust in your memory.

Integrative Life Center uses various treatment methods to help survivors of childhood trauma heal and regain memories.

Treatment methods include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Talk therapy that focuses on changing the automatic negative response to trauma and replacing the patterns and behavior. 
  • Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR). A treatment technique that involves moving your eyes in a specific way while processing traumatic memories. It can help reduce the distress associated with these memories.
  • Brainspotting. A therapeutic process that examines the body’s natural self-scanning ability and focuses on how the brain reflexively signals emotions.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). A type of cognitive behavior therapy that develops mindfulness skills and focuses on “living in the moment.”

These treatment methods are only effective with an open mind and a willingness to heal. Rebuilding your memory takes time. Once you can process the trauma, you can begin your healing journey.

Don’t Let Childhood Trauma Control Your Present

No matter how long it’s been since you experienced childhood trauma, there is always time to heal. Understanding childhood trauma and memory loss can be vulnerable and scary. But there’s no shame in being unable to remember. Your mind was protecting you from the trauma.

Childhood trauma shouldn’t control you. Taking steps to overcome your past and finding healthy coping mechanisms can greatly improve your life. Integrative Life Center can provide treatment, therapy, and resources to overcome your past trauma so you can live fully in your present. Contact us today. 

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