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Trauma, breakdown and memory

Traumatic experiences overload us

The experiences are so powerful that they cannot be understood and processed like ordinary memories which makes them very difficult to live with.

The kind of events which can cause splits and divisions to occur in our minds and psyches include:

  • sudden bereavement
  • being attacked, being bullied, domestic violence, sexual abuse
  • being repeatedly scared and intimidated, sudden shocks
  • repeated exposure to accidents and emergencies

Can we find better ways to live with them?

Trauma causes the mind to split, and when this happens elements of the traumatic experience can become detached from consciousness.  These bits then exist in a separate area of memory.  The emotional qualities of the memories retain their intensity though the actual memories of the events they relate to can be lost.

You blank out the memory of the beating, or the abandonment, but remember the feeling of terror.

This means that you can be left with complex and difficult feelings without a clear sense of how you relate to them or what they refer to.

Particular kinds of experience provoke traumatic feeling states and memories

They may be triggered by a variety of dramatic, or ordinary, things such as:

  • sudden noises
  • arguments
  • stressors
  • the sense of threat or anger

When this happens, without warning you can be suddenly transported into the detached and disturbing feelings.  The world becomes radically altered, and often much more threatening.  You become dominated by projections built on these old traumatic feelings.  But when you are in the grip of these feelings you can’t see that.

In this state you may be distressed, emotionally incapacitated, gripped by emotions that limit your capacity to think straight and relate to people around you.  You are likely to feel threatened and to reject people.

In these detached feeling states we lose access to our full cognitive ability

We are not able to think about what is happening, we are just suddenly in the highly charged emotions.  In a sense it is like we are going through the moment of the original trauma again, we are thrown into the worst kind of altered reality state, a kind of waking nightmare in which we feel profoundly unsafe, persecuted.

In these states thinking becomes more anxious, highly charged and paranoid.  It is terribly disorienting to get these kind of unsafe feelings being linked to ordinary everyday things.  It turns the ordinary world into a hell.

If you find that your life involves this kind of disruption it will be very hard to live well, to create lasting relationships, to develop a career, to live creatively.  It is very distressing and difficult trying to live with the after-effects of traumatic experience.  One minute you can feel like one kind of person, the next another.

If you identify that this relates to you, what can you do?

Psychotherapy is a good place to work on these things, to try to integrate these cut off, split off parts of experience, feelings and memory.

Working in a confidential relationship you may find a way to:

  • bring more of your story together
  • piece together what memories and understanding you have
  • understand more about the way your feelings and memories become disrupted

You may not be able to eliminate these kind of experiences, they are part of you in the same way as other memories are part of you. But it may be possible to:

  • learn more about what happens to you when these states grip you
  • to develop some insight into what you are going through

This doesn’t eliminate it, but it may help.  By taking away some of the strangeness, it may reduce the randomness of the shock.

This is the value of knowing yourself, of living a more explored life.  And when I say know yourself, I am referring to practical knowledge about who you are, the kind of highly charged emotions that grip you.  This is what psychotherapy can do.

“I realise the distress and upset that I am experiencing isn’t real.  I am in the grip of  something, like an old nightmarish memory.

Then, I can see I have fallen into this state again, then I can see there is a way out.

From learning about my breakdown I am better able to recognise when it’s happening. It isn’t real, it’s a memory.

It’s spotting that I am in the grip of the memory that takes learning. Then I can unwind from it”.



Trauma, breakdown and memory

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Trauma, breakdown and memory. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 25, 2019, from


Last updated: 24 Feb 2018
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