Why “Let it go and move on with your life” doesn’t work:
The Power of the Mind: Understanding Traumatic Memory
#Metoo and Why an Abused Person Can’t Just Move On
A woman was admitted to a hospital psychiatric unit after memories of childhood sexual abuse reawakened. Desperate to rid herself of the intrusive memories, she took whatever pills she could get her hands on. The therapist assigned to her said she needed to be rational about the situation. “That was then. This is now. Forget it and get on with your life.”
Such an appeal to reason might be helpful if emotional states were simply the result of thoughts, or if reason could keep unwanted memories out of mind. But, research in neuroscience makes it clear that emotional states are not regulated by reason.
Though this person’s distress was caused by intrusive memories, the suicidal behavior was due to hyperarousal she could neither downregulate nor tolerate.
Emotional self-regulation would have allowed her to accommodate recall. But her early life did not allow emotional self-regulation to develop. Emotional self-regulation develops when hyperarousal is consistently followed by signals from the face, voice, and touch of an attuned caregiver. Researcher Stephen Porges has found that when a person is attuned and non-judgmental, they unconsciously send signals of safety. These signals, unconsciously received and processed, activate the recipient’s calming parasympathetic nervous system.
When emotional self-regulation was not adequately developed during childhood, adults regulate arousal by being in control of every situation. Control allows them to be sure nothing will happen that could cause hyperarousal. If control of a situation is in doubt, hyperarousal may still be controlled if escape is available.
In this case, the person was unable to control what she was aware of and sought to escape awareness with pills. Escape from awareness—and possibly from being alive—was thwarted by hospitalization. The therapist’s directive to be rational did not increase her ability to regulate herself. Had the therapist been non-judgmental and able to share the woman’s experience, signals from the therapist’s face, voice, and touch could have activated the woman’s parasympathetic nervous system. When calming relatedness is repeated and internalized, emotional self-regulation increases.
This therapeutic strategy is detailed in Allan Schore’s book, The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. To be effective, Schore says therapists must possess a “wide window” of affect regulation within which they can share the experience of a client who is hyperaroused or hypoaroused. By so doing, the therapist widens the client’s window of self-regulation.
In his neurological research, Joseph LeDoux, the leading expert on the amygdala, has found the amygdala has two types of memory cells. Both types learn from painful situations and cause the amygdala to react when the situation is again encountered. But what happens when a situation that caused pain is re-encountered and does not cause pain? The “plastic memory cells” reverse what they originally learned. The “storage memory cells” do not.
When a child is threatened and cannot escape, the trauma is recorded in both types of cells. As an adult, when life is more under the person’s control, the plastic cells do what the therapist suggested; they replace past experience with present experience. They indeed learn “that was then and this is now.” They learn to not react to situations that in some way are associated with the abuse.
But, not the storage memory cells. What they originally learned sticks. New learning is not accepted.
Regarding the #metoo movement, a non-abused person may not understand why an abused person doesn’t just let it go. Like this woman’s therapist, they don’t understand it isn’t possible to let go of the past because the past (due to the amygdala’s storage memory cells) doesn’t let go of us. The storage cells are permanently programmed to cause arousal when exposed to the same situation, or to a similar situation.
When a child experiences hyperarousal and is not calmed, hyperarousal becomes linked to fear and to danger. As a result, when an adult is in a place where they are not in control or able to escape, even mild arousal feels unsafe, and may lead to panic.