The Memory of Trauma

Dr. Dan Allender reflects on the nature of redemption and how our bodies can re-experience past events as if they are in the present. When it comes to the interplay of trauma and arousal, remembering stories of harm can seem too shameful for many people. But engaging those stories with kindness rather than contempt opens the door to healing and restoration.

Video Transcript

Updated September 2021

I want to think about memory and the implications of entering stories that hold both the heartache of abuse, but also the issue of arousal and holding memories. Let’s talk about memory. First of all, memories are not a videotape. They’re not a kind of replication of what occurred in a kind of 1 to 1 relationship. No one remembers at a level of an actual account of what occurred. Studies have been done where even two hours before you are asked to recount and what people have found is that you don’t remember by what occurred. You remember by the way you narrate that experience. And so narration, story, is how we remember.

We have a beginning. We have a middle, we have an end, and we code any memory. We actually bring it into our brain through the process of a kind of this is the beginning. This is the middle. This is the end. So, as we remember, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves a story. And so when we recount to somebody else, we’re trying to make sense of how the beginning actually is the beginning, because in many ways it’s a very artificial fact that this wasn’t really the beginning. There was something two minutes before 20 minutes before two hours before, But yet the story begins here, and so, as we remember, we’re recounting a story. What we also know is that nothing is remembered unless there’s a certain we’ll call it charge of cortisol. There has to be a certain level of stress and our stress biochemicals are catecholamines, adrenaline or adrenalin, particularly cortisol has to be ramped up somewhat in order for it to actually mark that moment as something memorable.

And what we find is if there is not sufficient cortisol, we don’t remember if there’s too much and we’re overwhelmed, because now we actually have a sense of fragmentation, more shards of memory, more images. The left hemisphere begins to shut down. Broca’s area with language begins to shut down, and the right hemisphere comes online. And really it holds primarily not sequence, but images, shards of images. And then we can’t remember because we don’t have a narrative. So if we think about story as the way we recall, we know that when we’re accounting for an accident that nearly occurred on the freeway that, as we’re telling somebody, our body actually begins to experience a portion, maybe not the extent of what occurred. But we experience a portion of the rise of the stress biochemicals. Well, it’s actually true across the board with regard to our brain that when we account for a story that has to do with a kind of a sweet interaction with a good friend, actually are biochemical oxytocin. The bonding biochemical increases. Or if we’re talking about a really sweet moment, a great great dinner that we had our body will actually produce a sense of or a portion of dopamine. And that is our pleasure biochemical. So we need to hear that when we remember our body doesn’t distinguish the time in which the event occurred. So when we talk about an accident or near accident, our body is going to feel anxious.

When we’re talking about a really pleasurable moment, our body is going to experience a certain level of just goodness. So if you’re hearing where this is moving with regard to the issues of abuse, it becomes the very reason that many people will not go into the particular moment of their harm because their body is going to feel something of the rise of oxytocin because you were groomed and you were brought into a bonding moment and you’re going to experience a certain level of incredible anxiety and stress. And so cortisol rises. But when your body is touched, when primary secondary sexual body parts are touched and stimulated, your body is going to be aroused and here becomes the killer for most people. Why do we not want to remember?

Normally, what we say is because it was so painful and indeed it was. But one of the reasons we don’t want to remember is because your body is going to experience in the present some of what you experienced 20, 30, 40 years ago. In other words, if we can get down to the war of shame, what we’re going to experience is arousal and arousal in the present, which only then catapults the human heart to feeling even darker. Even more like I might understand why I felt some arousal in the moments of abuse. But now, 20, 30, 40 years later, my body is titillated. My body is experiencing some level of arousal, and I’m experiencing it in the context of telling a story of such heartache.

How do I hold it together? What indeed we can call the phenomena of ambivalence, ambivalence. Being one current of emotion, we can just say a heartache and horror and yet another affect or emotion that is a sense of arousal. For most people, that experience is not only maddening, it makes you feel crazy, and as a result, most people shut it down. It is why the work of engagement with stories of abuse must have a movement into the stories of particular charity of the actual moment where shame congeals into your life and that needs to be extracted, engaged blast. You need to grieve. There needs to be a whole set of affect that comes along with that moment of, of, of owning the arousal that was there. But if there is this predilection that I can’t feel that because it makes me feel foul, dark, wicked that any part of my body would have felt aroused in the context of abuse, what most people fear is that that is an actual sign that somehow I wanted it I’m complicit in this. Nothing. Oh, my gosh, nothing could be further from the truth yet the phenomena of shame and ambivalence. And then it turned to contempt, judgement, and then a flight to dissociation.

That’s the normal standard versus heart, able to walk into the particular charity of the story where the shame is held to be able to grieve when your body felt what it felt and to do so now in the present with a kindness on behalf of that younger part of you, that is the work of redemption.