Can Emotions Trigger Old Traumatic Memories?

One thing that we all have is memories, both good and bad. There is an argument to suggest that everything that ever happens to us is ‘mapped’ onto the cells of our bodies energetically and this serves the purpose of enabling us to learn from things that have happened to us. This seems fairly logical; from an evolutionary perspective we wouldn’t have memories unless they served some useful purpose. 

For the sake of this article we are going to divide memories into two categories: voluntary recall and involuntary recall. Voluntary recall are those memories where you consciously seek to recall something from the past – be that 5 seconds, 5 weeks or 5 years, etc. Involuntary recall are those memories that seem to jump into our heads (and bodies). These types of memories are often unpleasant and, at their extreme, can seem to haunt us. 

The explanation for voluntary memory seems perfectly easy to understand. We sit back and think of a time when x, y and z happened. Those of us with relatively good memories then find ourselves able to relive, to a certain degree, events from the past. However, involuntary memory seems a little more confusing. Why would a memory just jump into our heads, bringing all the associated emotions that we feel in our bodies? And, if this is an unpleasant memory, why would our mind-body want to give us a scare like that? 

In order to answer that question, let’s first take a step back and revisit one of the basic tenants of our model of healthcare: symptoms are useful and purposeful and are trying to convey some information to us when they appear. What if we were to view unpleasant involuntary memories as just another symptom? 

We could put forward the argument that when an emotion is ‘triggered’ by a current event, past memories will leap into conscious attention as a sort of reminder that some different action needs to be taken. Unfortunately, this has been misleading to some as an indication that something in the past needs to be dealt with or rectified. We can categorically say that it doesn’t, and trying to go back into the past won’t solve anything. 

So this leads us to the question of how do we take action to prevent being haunted by unpleasant involuntary memories? The answer lies in the way we act on our body emotion in the present. This is probably best exemplified in an example. A lady, we’ll call her Sonia, is having a conversation in a restaurant with a friend, we’ll call Maria. Maria has made plans to go on a trip and is telling Sonia that she will be going on the trip as well. Despite the fact that Sonia doesn’t want to go, Maria is being quite forceful about what she’s saying. Sonia’s body begins to send frustration signals about the situation, but Sonia ignores it and agrees to go on the trip. As a sufferer of frequent headaches, her body begins to send symptoms when these emotions get trapped inside. As Sonia gets up to leave the restaurant, she finds that a series of unpleasant involuntary memories appear in her head of times in the past when family members ‘made’ her do things by being very forceful and domineering.  

Keen to learn from this experience, the following occasion when Sonia found her self in a restaurant with Maria, the same thing happened. This time, however, Sonia made it clear that she did not want to go and that she was quite capable of making decisions for herself. The frustration that the body had began to be sent quickly dissipated as Maria apologised and promised to ask Sonia before making arrangements in future. Not only did Sonia not experience symptoms, she was not haunted by involuntary memories. 

Sonia also found that she was able to replicate this type of behaviour with other ‘forceful’ people she encountered in her life.The more she did this the less she experienced involuntary memories until she was not bothered by them at all. On top of that, when attempting voluntary recall on some of those memories they simply didn’t seem so bad. 

In conclusion, by changing our behaviour in response to an emotion in the present, we cut the ties with those involuntary memories from the past.  

The key point to learn is that whenever a memory leaps into your mind, rather than spending time thinking about that time in the past, reorientate your attention to what is happening in your life now and work out how you need to shift your behaviour in response to emotions that are being triggered now.

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