Grant Spencer

Traumatic Memories and Our Response to Overcoming Them

Traumatic memories are often placed in the rearview mirror instead of under the microscope, but how do you work through trauma without it overcoming you? 


“I don’t think you’ve really coped with what happened with your father.” A statement like this dropped into an argument can feel strategic and completely condescending; pop psychology used as a distraction from the real problem at hand. It might even seem as if this is another person in a line of those who you thought were close but are turning against you. When someone suggests you haven’t “dealt with” a difficult memory or experience in your life, what does that even mean?

I’d like to help demystify this phenomenon from a psychologist’s point of view. In order to explain psychological processes, I like to use specific examples and, in this case, I will be discussing grief, so be weary of your reactions to that type of content.

Let’s turn the tables on the example above. Imagine that someone else close to you has been more snappy than usual and the mood has persisted for a long time. You notice that this has only been a problem since their father passed away. You have tried to show compassion, but the tension has become unbearable. You may know that this person had a tense relationship with their father that they strongly wished was otherwise, but unfortunately he died before they were able to resolve those issues.

The lingering anger this person might feel in response to this situation can sometimes lead to a generalized sense of anger with the world. An ability to control their world and a loved one were both unexpectedly and forever taken away. This will leave them with a limited capacity to cope with stress and they might be overreactive. In conflict, the questions will buzz for you: is this person tired, is work stressful, or you might ask, either gently or not, whether they have really “dealt with” the loss of their father.

The tenets of pop psychology are easy to lean on when trying to make sense of unusual behaviors. It’s especially useful when someone is feeling like they are bearing the brunt of anger that is out of proportion to the problem at hand. More often than not, jumping from the issue at hand to a subconscious psychological issue can seem condescending and invalidating to the sufferer. It is likely they will hold onto the idea that their frustration was reasonable, even if they know the amplification of their reaction was not.

In this case, it is a reaction to the reliving of a memory. When you learn to manage those emotions when reliving a memory, you will be able to think more clearly.

Before I go on to an explanation of emotional processing (“dealing with it”), I’d like to recommend backing off from making these revelations for someone else when anger is heightened. It is very rare to be able to process complicated information when a person is lost in their own anger. Also, if your theory is true, the emotions are like artifacts—familiar but not immediately recognizable.

If you are going to insist on attempting amateur diagnosis, at least try when both of you are reasonably calm. Also, consider planting a seed rather than digging deep. Let the other person consider your theory and see if it rings true for them rather than launching into a formal debate. Keep in mind there is no magic psychological formula that can prove beyond doubt that one event can lead to a reaction in another. It’s also important to consider that, as you are defending yourself from an attack, you might be using the pop psychology as a defense or distraction mechanism that serves in keeping you safe. Your theory might be more useful for you than it is for them.

Processing a traumatic or difficult memory is simple in regards to the mechanics of psychological therapy and how this interacts with your brain. I’ll give you the basic steps. Firstly, your psychologist would provide techniques that are tailored to you that help reduce your distress more effectively than ever before. You then talk about your memory of the event in specific detail. It follows that with your new techniques you can demonstrate to yourself mastery of the emotions that come up. And finally, your brain begins to habituate to those emotions. Habituation is the gradual reduction of a reaction in response to a specific stimulus. In this case, it is a reaction to the reliving of a memory. When you learn to manage those emotions when reliving a memory, you will be able to think more clearly. This means you are more able to make sense of that experience, be more willing to forgive or let go of a transgression, or perhaps remember details that you had previously forgotten during other recollections.

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In order to provide something practical, I’ll describe one of the basic processes that I have clients use when a difficult emotion or memory rises up. The three steps are: validate, dilute, then commit.

Validate your emotional reaction; be able to say to yourself in a genuine way, “It is okay that these emotions came up. I have gone through a hard time.” This process validates your experience and thereby reduces the additional, very stressful complication that you might be going “crazy.”

Then move onto dilution. This refers to reduction in the severity of the reaction and its causes. This is achieved either by introducing an alternative thought that is less catastrophic or with some deep breathing techniques—whichever is more appropriate considering the severity of your reaction. The more severe the reaction, the less able you will be to engage with a different perspective and, as such, using some deep breathing techniques can be useful. Let’s visit our previous example to illustrate the introduction of an alternative thought: While your relationship with your father was tense at the time of his passing, what other evidence suggests that your whole relationship could not be defined by that tough period? When you remember those better times, can you let in the feelings of warmth toward him?

Finally, shift into commitment. This refers to the act of distracting yourself with another task, another conversation or pattern of thought, or even taking responsibility for whoever may have copped your angry outburst about something unrelated. It is wonderful to have an emotionally supportive partner, colleague, or friend that understands your outbursts, but it is also useful to be able to manage those emotions on your own.

When I look over this article, my own mind fills with the questions you might ask about your own personal experience and how it may not fit with these recommendations. Unfortunately, such is the nature of psychological therapy. It is a very individual experience that is best navigated with a professional who best suits you. If you take away anything from this article, I hope it is the idea that avoidance of your own emotional state will only work for a short time. Eventually, when you find yourself self-medicating or distancing yourself from friends, you may have discovered just how your brain will decide for you when you’ve had enough.




Grant Spencer

Grant Spencer is a psychologist in private practice who wanted to be a writer who wanted to be a rock singer. He has a BA in Creative Writing and Literature, and continues to write poetry intermittently in order to avoid the panic over running his own business.

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