It all seems obvious to a person who isn’t trauma-informed to make these conclusions. For those not understanding trauma, are curious about why the gaps in memory occur or are not looking through a lens of the brain this does seem sketchy at first glance. It sounds confusing at best and fraudulent at worst that a victim doesn’t remember parts of events that they “should,” in fact, recall.
Therapists working in the field understand hormonal responses, neurotransmissions including adrenaline and norepinephrine surges during an event along with the impacted neuropathways of brains following a traumatic event. We also have excellent supporting research from the Department of Veterans Affairs in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and adverse impacts from soldiers struggling upon their return home and why. We DO have a pretty good understanding of the gaps in memory and responses after trauma occurs and it really is a real thing. We also know it can be treated. Thank you to the Veterans who helped us understand what worked and what didn’t. I am deeply sorry to those who suffered so long before we knew what we know now about how to help.
We have a responsibility as a society to understand the science and stories of our survivors.
To a society first being introduced to these concepts this probably seems foreign. For someone who hasn’t experienced trauma or learned about why things stay online or offline in a brain, it might look like psychobabble or jargon trying only to take “sides” with the victim. I want to make an argument that is based in science and why this might be confusing for people who haven’t been educated or experienced trauma themselves to wrap their brains around. I hope your curious part sticks around for a minute if you're open to what I have to share.
1. After or during a traumatic event part of the brain goes online and parts go offline. Movies depicting “multiple personality disorder” haven’t helped to understand this phenomenon and people often think that you have to have very “split parts of the self” to have moments of what we coin “dissociation.” Dissociation is very common after a traumatic event and most of the time doesn’t lead to various parts of the personality “switching” over like the movies or dramatic TV shows depict. It doesn’t mean dissociation isn’t real and it is much more common than we think but doesn’t look like what mainstream media portrays. It does look like a person has disappeared emotionally. Glazed over, back to their experience or almost in a trance. It does look like time has stopped. They do often look frozen in the middle of a discussion, and it could be directly related to the trauma we are discussing, or a feeling state that suddenly rushed over them making them feel like vomiting Rarely do they "switch personalities" as we commonly see on TV.
2. Dissociation is a genuine part of the experience. An excellent book to read to understand it at a higher level better is by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. – The Body Keeps the Score. It will go into greater detail than this writing about the hippocampus, cortisol levels, and what scientists have discovered as a result of adverse experiences following terrible events a person has witnessed or been a victim of. We can also see some of these same responses in other animal species experiencing threat watching them fight, flight, freeze, collapse, or surrender.
3. Our bodies often remember tastes, sounds, smells, feeling states, or random seemingly insignificant details after an event. Our brains were never meant to deal with horror and witnessing the worst of the human condition. Our minds do an outstanding job of going “offline” during these worst moments and frankly, we would not survive emotionally (or sometimes physically - think of John McCain's capture) if they stayed “online” during some of the very worst moments. Sometimes the brain stays online and occasionally offline and what the brain picks up on can be related to hormone levels and cortisol in the brain. For Post Traumatic Stress Survivors, we are certain levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) that modulates stress responses varies quite differently from those who have not experienced a traumatic event. The brain can become hypo-aroused (feeling numb) or hyper-aroused (feeling on edge producing re-creation or re-enacting of the experience.) Many times people experience both at different points.
4. Triggers. People can be triggered by reminders of the event.
Examples of triggers:
The smell of someone’s breath
the sight of a car where the trauma occurred or make/model of an accident
A feeling state that happened in the time of the event
Intrusive thoughts of rage or self-harm
The racing brain that just and can’t stop leading to insomnia
The brain will resort to “psychic numbing.” If the numbing doesn’t work, a person may turn to drugs, alcohol, or impulsive behavior to make this numbing turn-off or sometimes even to turn on. I hear people telling me “I just want to feel something again and alcohol lets me do that,” or more often, “I can’t get the sounds or smells out of my head and marijuana just makes it more bearable.” This makes total sense as a clinician, but they can be ostracized by others for their actions which don't see these behaviors as purely functional and how they are trying to stay alive. People experiencing this condition often feel a sense of shame and helplessness while also desperately wanting to run from these hauntings of their past. I hear “why can’t I control this? I’m so strong in every other part of my life?”
That is because you ARE strong in every other part of your life and you are not broken. Your brain has experienced events that you were not supposed to suffer from, and the mind does not know when or what to turn on and turn off at times it’s supposed to now. It’s not your fault.
It is also not your responsibility to convince naysayers of your story or why it’s valid. Your account is valid because it just is and how you experience symptoms are probably similar to others and also different than others. No two people are the same. Gaps in memory are common and feeling states you attempt to avoid is probably your brain’s way of trying to make sense and coping with what shouldn’t have happened to you.
I’ll be writing a bit more of a treatment called “Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing” soon and why we think it works and I have asked a few of my clients to share some of their examples (with names and experiences changed to protect identities) and how it has been helpful on their journeys. Some treatments can help center the brain, so the numbing, agitation, reminders, and triggers become a memory and not a current state of panic or numbing.
However, before I write about the components of this treatment and as a therapist who provides it, I wanted to establish something else:
A. It is not your fault that your memory processing network was disrupted by an event that happened to you that you did not choose. Any painful memory is worth discussing and just because your experience may not have "been as bad as _______ (I hear this a great deal) this doesn't mean it shouldn't be treated. If it's bothering you and creating the above symptoms, treatment can likely help you.
B. Your brain was doing (and probably is doing) the best it could and hasn’t learned it doesn’t need to go offline or to overdrive at the most crucial times for you. Be nice to yourself. Your brain and parts of your personality are doing the best they can with the circumstances they were dealt.
C. You deserve to be believed, and it isn’t your fault that society doesn’t understand what clinicians know.
D. It can get better with appropriate help and care. We know this. We have research supporting this.
Jill Lehmann-Bauer, LISW, ACSW
Clinical Social Worker, Central Iowa Therapy Solutions, LLC.
Passionate about advocacy, recovery + healing, attachment theory, and relationships.