How Memories of Fear and Abuse are Stored and Re-Triggered

The Subconscious Mind Never Forgets

As reported in the article, Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events, when a person who was sexually abused in childhood encounters an event, person, or experience, their mind (which is like a biological computer) matches it against events and experiences already stored in their subconscious mind. The subconscious mind then connects the experience, or person, to a recorded danger from the past.

This is when an “alarm response” is triggered in the mind and body of the adult survivor of trauma and abuse. This is the mental mechanism that is triggered when a person suddenly experiences a panic or anxiety attack, body memories, flashbacks, unknown fear, sudden sadness, anger, or anything associated with fear/emotional trauma/or the fight or flight defense. (This is also the same scenario for when memories can return).

There is a good example of this in a case I previously wrote about a year ago. The case shows how a child, or an adult, can recall sexual abuse physically, mentally, or emotionally…but not consciously.

The case involved an eight year-old boy who had a severe reaction to hot dogs. He would not eat hot dogs until his was cut in half by an adult. The boy shouted and became frantic for adults to cut his hot dogs. He would also only eat bananas that were cut in half, and he would take Popsicles off their sticks and eat them with a spoon.

When the child was asked why he did this, he responded that otherwise he would get scared or angry, and that he just had to do it, but was unsure why.

This young boy had been forced by his father from birth to perform oral sex on him, and later on, to do it for many other men, until the boy reached age six.

The child’s subconscious mind was associating these penis shaped objects with the trauma he once suffered.

Another example is from my own personal experience.

Prior to any recall of incest, I experienced a strange reaction to driving by the fast-food restaurants “Jack in the Box.”  Every time I drove by one of these restaurants, I would get rapid heart rate, and or, chest pain.

This went on for nearly a year, until I remembered the incest, and until I began to face and heal the once-repressed memories of my father sticking his penis in my mouth (sorry, I know that’s hard and triggering for some of you to read).


The old Jack in the Box restaurants used to have the image of a Jack popping out of the box. Even though those images were removed, the mere name of the restaurant presents the image in the mind of a Jack popping out of a box.

Jack One

If you have not figured it out by now, the Jack popping out of the box triggered (in my subconscious mind) the memory of my father’s erect penis popping out of his pants just before he put it in my mouth. Yes, this is hard to read. But it is true, it can help someone, and it explains how the subconscious mind works in relation to childhood sexual abuse and every day life.

The researcher in the case with the little boy and the hot dogs wrote:

With each meal, some small part of T. [the boy] relives the abuse of his early childhood, some set of deeply burned-in state memories are accessed. These rarely, if ever, come to his awareness as a ‘cognitive’ memory — he will likely never be able to have the insight to make the association between his eating habits and his early abuse. Each meal scratches at the slowly healing scars of his childhood.”


An excellent example of how victims begin to dissociate the trauma and pain shortly after the traumatic experiences take place, is described by the case of a five year old girl who saw her father fatally shoot her mother and then commit suicide.

Five weeks later, she was asked by a mental health professional, what the worst thing was that had ever happened to her. 

In that moment the child “had a marked alteration in her facial expression, stopped playing, moved her face and head away from the interviewer and stared into space. After a long moment, she stated, “I wanted to stay up late last weekend and have pizza, but I had to go to bed.”

After that, the interview consisted of the girl giving only single word responses.

Obviously the question evoked the trauma within her, but she dissociated from it by thinking instead about the pizza weekend.

Physical Illness and Disease in Relation To Trauma

If you suffer from cfids, like I once did, you know how exercise can bring on heavy physical symptoms that are associated with the disease.

For some people, some of those symptoms are also related to having been severely sexually abused in childhood. For me, some of my cfids symptoms, like extreme fatigue and headaches, were connected to feeling as a child, “what’s the use?” and for being punished by my mother as a child for having been with my father.

An interesting case of body memories is illustrated by an eighteen year old female who was brutally raped.

Before she was raped, she had exercised frequently and enjoyed it. About a year after the rape, the young woman was not able to run and exercise any longer. When she began to feel good again she would return to exercising and immediately have anxiety attacks, feel depressed, and have intrusive thoughts about the rape.

Exercise brought on an increase in heart rate which probably signaled to her brain that she was being attacked all over again. The rapid heart rate was telling her mind that she was in trouble again. It was another form of brain association. Once she made the connection, she was able to disconnect from the increased heart rate and therefore, stopped associating it with rape.

When I was desperately sick with cfids, any exercise (even just walking) often brought on chest pains, a debilitating fatigue, heart flutters, or other psycho-somatic symptoms.

Skeptics might think that because of this, and because of the Jack in the Box incidents, that I had a heart problem. Quite the contrary. Three medical doctors, including one of the top cardiologists in my state examined me numerous times, and I had several heart stress tests, only to discover I was “one of the healthiest patients” they had ever seen, and had a good heart.

Also see: Mental Defense Systems in Sexually Abused Children


Source Notes: Memories of Fear How the Brain Stores and Retrieves Physiologic States, Feelings, Behaviors and Thoughts from Traumatic Events Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. The Child Trauma Academy  Academy version of a chapter originally appearing in “Splintered Reflections: Images of the Body in Trauma” (Edited by J. Goodwin and R. Attias) Basic Books (1999) 


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9 Responses to How Memories of Fear and Abuse are Stored and Re-Triggered

  1. Little Nel says:

    I get really angry when I hear about children being severely “punished” for being sexually abused by an adult.

    I know that it is a part of the “cover up” behavior to silence the child and keep them feeling guilty and ashamed of it.

    I’ve had many victims tell me that they were spanked or whipped with a belt when they told a parent about the sexual abuse.

    One victim told me that she was 4 when the babysitter started abusing her and told her not to tell. Her parents took her to the doctor because she was having urinary problems, bed wetting, and redness in her vaginal area. The doctor who examined her told the parents that she was masturbating and to spank her for it. Her parents did not want to spank her but the doctor insisted.

    She began to have severe reactions to the “spankings.” She became afraid of her parents and the babysitter. She stopped talking and shut down emotionally within a year.

    Her parents took her to another doctor who told them that she was being sexually abused by one or both of them and that the spankings were used to silence her. The doctor turned them in for child abuse and they were arrested. She was put into a foster home.

    It wasn’t long until a smart social worker figured out that the babysitter was the offender after an interview with him. He confessed eventually.

    She had all kinds of “triggers” that would send her into a panic. Her parents spent a lot of time, effort, and money trying to undo what was done to her. They had terrible guilt about what they had done to her because the doctor had made a bad diagnosis and an even worse “remedy.”

    • Alethea says:

      Well, they deserve the guilt for listening to that fucking doctor. Excuse me. I am NOT angry at you LN. I am angry at parents who take the advice of a “professional” to hurt their child. Just because someone wears a white coat and has a degree hanging on their wall, it does not mean they should be given the power to dictate to a person, or parent, abuse and harm.

      That the parents took his instructions and went ahead and spanked, and punished the child, is ridiculous and ignorant. The grown adult victim will suffer a lot of problems because of that action.

      I was punished, abused further, and threatened for having been sexually abused. THAT aspect of my abuse was one of the most disturbing to my life. I can attest to the fact that the punishment can cause years or decades of psychosomatic symptoms and self-punishing/self-sabatoging behavior.


      • Little Nel says:

        “Well, they deserve the guilt for listening to that fucking doctor.”

        I am in total agreement, Alethea. I feel the same anger towards the parents.

        I was not surprised to learn that the common denominator in this girl’s tormented life was a “church affiliation” with the parents, the doctor, and the baby sitter.

        • Jess says:

          Ugh that term “church affiliation” makes me completely cringe!

        • Alethea says:

          LN, that “church affiliation” issue is strong, and common. Many many children suffer because of it.

          • Little Nel says:

            The victim who suffered this abuse told me that she would cringe every time that she heard the name of that “church” which was really a cult that practiced “mind control” tactics that made it’s members feel guilt and fear when they questioned it’s leadership and/or ideas about “service” to their “church.”

      • Jane says:

        Well, they deserve the guilt for listening to that fucking doctor.
        ))))))))I agree wholeheartedly. If you ask me, people have not angry enough over all the child abuse at the hands of ignorant or stupid parents. These parents are better off raising tomatoes. Leave children alone!

        • Jane says:

          If you ask me, people have not (((((gotten))))) angry enough over all the child abuse at the hands of ignorant or stupid parents.

  2. kristy morrill says:

    My Uncle had a clean shaven face, he was my molester. To this date I only like men with a mustache or beard, hate that clean shaven look and feel against my skin. Just hugging a man – friend or relative- with soft smooth face and lips makes me gag.

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