Neuroscientistific research shows that our memory is strongest and lasts the longest when our emotions are heightened. This helps explain why we might remember every nuance of our wedding day or our valedictory speech in college.
It also holds true for our memories of traumatic events such as abuse or even one-time events such as severe accidents.
Trauma and abuse seem etched in people’s memories, while “important” information, such as remembering the Capitols of the states, is more easily forgotten. Often, treatment techniques used in the treatment of PTSD (and other disorders such as depression and anxiety which are sometimes related to painful memories), assume that traumatic memories are the hardest to let go of.
Now, new research seems to show that if you really want to forget a memory—you might be able to. Researcher Gerd Waldhauser from Lund University in Sweden says that we can learn to control our memory in the same way as we can control our motor impulses.
EEG measures of the brain show that the same parts of the brain are activated when we stop our motor impulses as when we suppress a memory. Waldhauser believes that just as we can practice restraining motor impulses, we can also actively train ourselves to repress memories and maybe even forget painful or traumatic events.
In general, science says that some of our less-necessary memories are “erased” when current events or other information need new “space” in which to “write” new memories. But emotionally-charged memories (both positive and negative) seem to stubbornly hang on, and sometimes, as in the case of PTSD, haunt us.
Therapists and their clients know that painful memories can also be suppressed or repressed to the point of near-total forgetfulness. In some cases, patients might have to access these painful memories in order to come to a deeper understanding of why they feel/act the way they do. When uncovering these memories, they sometimes feel so “new” and raw that they can, in effect, be re-traumatized all over again.
Traumatized patients often have a hard time coping with everyday life, let alone the work they need to do in order to uncover and resolve painful memories. That’s why many therapists who work with victims of trauma and abuse prefer to first focus on helping the patient build coping skills before uncovering and exploring the painful past.
Not every inability to cope is linked to a traumatic memory. Sometimes many years of maladaptive conditioning and numerous instances of inappropriate messages from caregivers “build up”.
A tip about trauma, memory, and coping skills: If you are involved in any way (as a family member, friend or even therapist), with someone who seems to be “stubbornly” clinging to a painful memory, there’s a right way and a wrong way to help them.
It comes down to a fine line between gently but repeatedly encouraging someone in their efforts to build proactive coping skills and/or a more positive outlook OR telling them to “get over it” and “move on.” The first is about the needs of the person who is suffering; the second is about your needs.
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Last reviewed: 11 Jul 2011