The Power of the Mind: Understanding Traumatic Memory

Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse ask themselves, “why can’t I heal?”

Answer: Because the subconscious mind -where most of our trauma, guilt and fear are stored as repressed emotions and memories- does not recognize time or space. So it feels as if the sexual abuse is still happening.

“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”

~Albert Einstein

In a study done in West Germany on concentration camp survivors, it was found that each of the subjects, in a sense, still live in the concentration camp. 1

The same is true for survivors of child sexual abuse, who have not yet dealt with their subconscious mind.

Any stress, or feelings of being threatened or unsafe, can cause trauma survivors to return to earlier patterns of behavior that were utilized during the abuse. During this state of “high arousal,” the survivor will do what they know, which is rooted in the instinct used while they were still a child. They will demonstrate defensive strategies –even if it didn’t work the first time. 2

This is why adult survivors of trauma are commonly hyper-vigilant and why they handle their feelings of being out of control by acquiring obsessions or phobias. This allows them to remain continuously ready for real or imagined, but no longer present, dangers. 3

This behavior is observed in the form of obsessive compulsive behavior and PTSD symptoms. It can also be found in survivors who regress to a child-like state when memories first begin to come back to them. 4

Before the actual abuse memories return, the person will have no idea that childhood damage is dictating the way they are handling stress. They usually have no conscious understanding of why they are excessively fearful.

The memories have been pushed into the subconscious mind, but the memory is still present in daily life. The memories are coming out in unhealthy or obsessive behaviors, unwarranted fears, emotions, and physical problems.

Powerful experiences, like child sexual abuse, which are omitted from consciousness, are preserved as “unconscious fixed ideas” and will not be blended into the victim’s normal consciousness until the abuse is remembered, comprehended, and overpowered at the subconscious level.

When abuse is not dealt with, the emotions and the original traumatic incident—still repressed—will affect one’s life with obsessive preoccupations, anxiety inflictions, and frightening concepts. 5

When an event or experience takes place in the adult life of a person who was traumatized as a child, the brain matches it against events which are already stored in the unconscious mind. If it is connected to a recorded danger from the past, an “alarm response” is triggered. This is the exact mechanism that kicks in when a person suddenly experiences over-reactive fear, an anxiety attack, a flashback, or when somatic (physical) symptoms arise. 6

This reaction of alarm explains why certain people trigger anger, fear, or anxiety in a survivor but other people do not.

As long as a previous victim of child sexual abuse does not allow the past to come forward with helpful psychoanalysis, they will continue to subconsciously seek out people who bring up their unresolved guilt, pain, or fear.

The subconscious mind wants to be healed. Until it is, misdirected anger and fear will be aimed at spouses, children, the teller at the bank, and even strangers. Anyone can become the enemy. It is often safe for the survivor to become aggressive towards, or verbally attack, people who did not abuse them as a child. It’s not okay to do, and unhealthy, but the survivor often feels safer releasing their emotions onto those who did not abuse them as children.

Disagreement - business professionals arguing over some business problems

During the abuse, it wasn’t safe for the child to defend his or herself, or to confront their perpetrator, so when the victim becomes an adult, they subconsciously attack innocent people. The rage is often taken out on spouses, co-workers, or neighbors.

Nevertheless, even if an abuse survivor leaves their marriage, walks away from a friendship,  or leaves their job in an attempt to run away from someone who triggers them, they will invariably wind up in a new marriage or get a new employer, only to find that they have established a relationship with a person who again triggers what has been left unresolved in the subconscious mind.

The Return of Traumatic Memory

If a child is repeatedly sexually abused over a period of months or years, the abuse would become an automatic part of the child’s life. The reaction to the abuse would then become second-nature. This would include submission to the sexual acts, not telling anyone, and dissociating from the event –all of which can aid the child in staying alive. It also provides assurance of maintaining a relationship with the abuser (if necessary for survival) and retaining the ability to function. The continued sexual abuse, which has become routine to the child, might imbed itself into the implicit memory.

Implicit memory is the part of the mind where actions that are “second nature” or “automatic” can be found

The manner in which victims push aside their trauma cannot be understood without understanding that there are two different forms of memory; implicit and explicit. Implicit memory works in the subconscious. This is linked to repetitious behaviors, like being able to tie our shoes without thought, basic driving skills, and other actions that come naturally. 7

Powerful, traumatic, and emotional memory is connected to implicit memory because human beings are constantly pushing aside their true feelings in order to get along with the people who have harmed them –usually family members.

The conscious mind will accept this false interaction and the person is able to withhold from expressing true feelings; but the subconscious mind does not let true emotions to be ignored.

So if the true feelings of a person are being watered down, denied, or suppressed in order to avoid confrontation, the subconscious mind will find a way to express itself –usually by taking the pain out on someone else, or with physical symptoms.

Explicit memory is information that is available to the conscious mind. The word explicit literally means “fully expressed,” with no question as to the meaning. Implicit means, “involved in the nature or essence of something, though not revealed, expressed, or developed.” 8

speakoutIf child sexual abuse is not fully understood and not being expressed in any healthy way by the child, and instead, shoved aside, denied, or totally repressed by the adult who endured it… then it makes sense that the experience would settle into non-declarative memory because it has not been outwardly/consciously “declared.”

Charles Whitfield M.D. explains that normal memory is more elastic, conscious, and chosen…. but that traumatic memory is associated with things that are involuntary, rigid, and subconscious. He says that traumatic memory is most often “frozen outside of time” in the unconscious.

Whitfield says that when trauma is consciously erected for the first time since childhood, the memory can feel as if the abuse is happening for the first time. 9 Survivors might experience sounds, voices, or odors that were present when the traumatic moment happened and can re-live the same bodily positions or movements that the abuser engaged in or that the child felt at the time, and these sensations will continue until the subconscious mind is satisfied through deep hypno-analysis therapy which allows the subconscious to re-process the memories, take power over them and transform the child into a warrior, shedding the victim identity. 10

Repressed memories usually only consist of pieces of what actually occurred. However, they often hold the most important parts of how exactly the event affected the child. 11 Research suggests that when traumatic memories first emerge, they might embody an event that took place immediately before a profoundly disturbing experience.

When the deeply distressing, or emotionally traumatic memory finally returns, it is often much later in the psychotherapy process, at a time when the patient can handle the memories without wanting to outwardly react to them, without having a nervous breakdown, and when the patient has established firm trust with their therapist.

State dependant memory is a theory that experts use to describe the condition in which an abuse survivor finds themselves prior to the more traumatic memories returning. It is described as an altered state of consciousness comparable to the moments in which severe abuse originally took place. People have even subconsciously created a threat or experience similar to the primary trauma in order to re-create the state dependent memory.

Research shows that memories often return in this state-dependent way. The recall has to be cued by the same kind of stimuli that initially took place. 12

“The memories were encoded in trauma-related states of helpless terror and wordless rage and are accessible only when the patient reenters those affective states.” 13

Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse

In the movie, Little Girl Fly Away, which is based on a true story, Mare Winningham’s character needed to re-create the fear of what happened to her as a child by sending herself threatening letters. She wrote them and sent them to herself, but she totally dissociated from the fact that she did this. When the letters arrived in the mail, the woman became terrified. She truly believed the letters were sent to her by a threatening stalker, but she had completely blocked out that she was the person who wrote and mailed them.

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1. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Psychiatric Disorders among Persecution Victims: A Contribution to the Understanding of Concentration Camp Pathology and its After-Effects, William G. Niederland, M.D. Vol 139, 1964, page 469
2. The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989
3. Behind the Playground Walls: Sexual Abuse in Preschools, Jill Waterman Ph.D, Robert J. Kelly Ph.D, Mary Kay Oliveri MSW, Jane Mc Cord, Ph.D, 1993, The Guilford Press page 244
4. The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411,June 1989
5. Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic memories: Overview and Exploratory Study. Bessel A. van der Kolk & Rita Fisler HRI Trauma Center 227 Babcock Street Brookline, MA 02146 and Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry
6. 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)
7. Childhood Trauma Remembered: A Report on the Current Scientific Knowledge Base and its Applications, The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, Section Three, Human Memory Processes, Traumatic Memory and Delayed Recall of Traumatic Events, Page 10-13
8. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary Tenth Edition 1996 Merriam-Webster
9. Memory and Abuse: Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, Charles L. Whitfield M.D., Health Communications Inc., 1995 page 42
10. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Memory Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. Psychiatric Times March 1997 Vol. XIV Issue 3
11. Memory and Abuse: Remembering and Healing the Effects of Trauma, Charles L. Whitfield M.D., Health Communications Inc., 1995 page 17
12. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Memory Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. Psychiatric Times March 1997 Vol. XIV Issue 3
13. Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse, Jody Messler Davies and Mary Gail Frawley, page 97, Basic Books
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3 Responses to The Power of the Mind: Understanding Traumatic Memory

  1. Jane says:

    Great article, the anger and fear with people can be so intense. It can be hard to tell what is the trauma and what is appropriate anger and fear.

    Many people are rude, patronizing and dismissive. When state care workers acted like this towards me in the home I was abused in as a child, this attitude to me was a threat to my safety and to my survival. When a worker felt like this towards me it meant that they wouldn’t intervene to prevent me being sexually abused again. it meant they would watch me be beaten and burnt with cigarettes by bigger kids and do nothing. Sometimes they would make me clean up my own blood.

    When people seem to discount me as a person like the workers did this can trigger a kind of terror, and then, unless they are physically threatening (in this case the anger is suppressed and felt later) it triggers feelings of fury and powerlessness.

    Sometimes it seems like everyone I meet is trying to make me feel that I am worthless. When someone is supposed to help me and they are mean I feel all the fury and the powerlessness and on top of that I feel betrayed. Because the abusive staff said they were there to help me. Their help was to tell me I am worthless.

    The incredible cruelty of child abuse by carers is that it makes it hard to ever feel safe in the world, and almost impossible to find help and care.

    • Alethea says:

      Dear Jane,

      So sorry it took so long to reply.

      I would say that any reaction which brings a feeling of “I over-reacted” or makes you feel physically negative in your body, is probably reaction to abuse triggers. When anger is justified, and does good – like good action- then you are usually okay. Like when a person is hurting a dog, or a child was left unattended and you take action by telling that person they are wrong and telling them to stop or to go to their child –then this is normal anger if handled without verbally attacking the other person.

      I handle rude, patronizing and dismissive people by just speaking the truth to them openly, but with strength and love, not with personal attacks or by being offended by them.

      I get the trigger there for you. You are right, the state care workers threatening your survival is probably the trigger. I used to take people’s dismissiveness etc as “no one will help me” –like while being raped, or when I tried to call a sister of mine for help.

      One of the most beautiful parts of the therapy I do is that it heals the feelings of being worthless, and empowers a person with strength, and the power of God, and you end up moving through the world and interacting as a helper of God, and not a ‘reactor’ to others.

  2. Little Nel says:

    “They usually have no conscience understanding of why they are excessively fearful.”
    How true!!!
    Most of my childhood was shrouded in fear and pain. I know that I went to extremes to avoid thinking about the sexual abuse I endured because of the trauma it produced in me.
    I had a best friend who’s father snuck up behind me when I was not expecting it, and sexually abused me. (It sent me into a panic attack later that day and I couldn’t sleep that night).
    Years later, after therapy, I told her again, her response was the same, denial, minimizing, and bullying.
    “Shut up – you sound like a wussy victim and I can’t handle it.”
    “It’s not like you were a murder victim.”
    “The cop in me says that there is something wrong with you.”
    “Stop saying bad things about other people.”
    Even though she tried to silence me with her finger- pointing protests, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for her.
    She takes anti-anxiety meds daily and took an early retirement because of job stress.
    “But by the Grace of God, go I.”
    I have no drug dependance or any need to medicate myself, just to get through the day without fearful thoughts or feelings of panic.
    I have a therapist and effective therapy to thank for this peace I feel today.

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