Trauma and Re-Experiencing: The Intrusion of Past into Present

distressed womanLast month I wrote about avoidance, one component of trauma-related struggles for many people. Another one of the primary things therapists consider when exploring trauma-related problems is what we call “re-experiencing.” When the natural healing process after a traumatic experience does not go smoothly, one of the things that many people will find themselves struggling with is the fact the memories of the traumatic event won’t seem to settle in and fade into the background, instead remaining very charged and intruding frequently into day-to-day life—re-experiencing.

Re-experiencing happens in a few ways. Some people find that they have unavoidable nightmares related to the event. This can be so distressing that some people find they avoid going to sleep at all. Others find that thoughts about the event and its aftermath trespass unbidden in their minds during their waking hours; we call these “intrusive thoughts.” Some find that memories from the event pop up and that they cannot control when and how these memories occur, sometimes in response to specific environmental cues and sometimes seemingly at random.

When these types of memories begin to plague a person, they can be quite distressing. This is because the way our brains form memories during a critical incident is physiologically different than the way they form the more pedestrian memories of our day-to-day lives. When the memories associated with a traumatic event are formed, they tend to be stored as sensory memories: we remember the sights, the smells, and the sounds the way we experienced them during the event. The part of our brains that stores these memories does not comprehend language and it does not read clocks—there is no sense of orderliness or reason about the memories, and there is no sense of relative distance in time. When the memories occur, our brains interpret it as an urgent sense of danger and distress in the present moment, and the sensory nature of the memories adds to the sense of urgency associated with them.

While our logical brains recognize that the memories don’t make sense and are not rational, they cannot communicate this to that part of the brain reacting to the sense of urgency created by the memories, since they do not comprehend the orderly, reasonable input of language created by our rational brain. This dilemma—understanding that there is no comprehensible or logical reason to feel distressed, yet feeling extremely distressed and trapped by the memories that won’t stop intruding—can itself be extremely distressing to the trauma survivor, who may feel like he or she is “going crazy” or “losing it” when the memories and distress they engender won’t abate.

If this overwhelming cycle of re-experiencing, distress, and confusion about what’s happening is causing difficulty for you or a loved one, it’s important to know this: you AREN’T crazy and you AREN’T losing it. You are experiencing a normal response to an abnormal event. However, if after a few weeks have passed the memories still intrude with urgency, it may be that your normal healing process has become stuck. In this case, speaking with an experienced therapist skilled in this area may be a good choice for you.

Moving forward from this place can feel overwhelming for some, but know that it most certainly is possible. It won’t always be easy, and confronting those memories requires courage. However, doing so in the safe and contained therapeutic environment can be very effective in helping the brain get the memories sorted out and “put away” in an adaptive and functional way so that they no longer intrude on and disrupt day-to-day functioning. It is worth the investment of time and energy it will take to move on to a place of healing and put the past where it belongs—in the past.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sunda Friedman TeBockhorst, PhD, therapist in Boulder, Colorado

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Annetta

    Annetta

    April 17th, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    Though for some of us it takes the reexperiencing of these troubling memories before we can truly confront what it is about them that is keeping us from moving forward and on with our lives. When we try to bury those memories this might work for a while, but there is no permanence in this. They are destined to continue to haunt us, in our waking hours and while we sleep. The better idea is to face them head on, with the help of a counselor who will help you work through them, confront them in a safe way and then once you have done that there is a greater overall likelihood that you can then move on and leave the past behind you where it should be.

  • Grace

    Grace

    April 18th, 2014 at 11:30 AM

    You say that it is good to face it, but if I felt like I have already faced it and buried it then why go through it again?
    I don’t want to be that eprson who is consistently living in the past and blaming things in the past for today and my actions today.

  • braylon

    braylon

    April 19th, 2014 at 7:15 AM

    There will always be times throughout the healking process that what you feel does not necessarily feel good. But healking doesn’t always feel good, it can actually bring a lot of hurt and pain to the surface. But like any wound, these could also be wounds that have to heal totally from the inside out, and while not comfortable or comforting they are what the mind and the body need to do to become complete again. I don;t think that there is anyone who could deny that this could be the answer to ridding yourself from that pain.

  • Natalie

    Natalie

    April 21st, 2014 at 3:41 AM

    What about something like guided re-experiencing, doing it only with the help of a trained professional therapist? This could be something that could help instead of having to go through it alone

  • Kimberly

    Kimberly

    June 7th, 2014 at 3:31 PM

    I am trying to work up the courage to meet with a therapist to deal with past issues that need to be dealt with soon. I am a year away from being a social worker, and my past has been rearing it’s ugly head because of things that come up in my classes. I also have a traumatic event from 14 years ago that has recently decided to come back and haunt me because of my current relationship that has proven to be my best one. But the intimacy sometimes triggers that incident from my past. How do I find the courage to deal with my past?

  • Melissa

    Melissa

    June 7th, 2014 at 6:42 PM

    It’s been two years now since my Narcissistic ex. ….. also my son’s father. … officially left to be with one of the many women he cheated w or saw while using me. Due to all the physical abuse, torment of lies, emotional abuse. …I feel confident this article tells my existence. Nightmares of him. … although usually “pleasant” of him wanting me back. …. torture me every night. There’s not usually a night that goes by otherwise.

    Flashbacks in my day … not everyday but close. My question aside from seeking help.
    … how do I recover. … even better from a Narcissist . …. when he is my son’s father and someone I must maintain contact with ? He still finds ways during conversation to hurt and manipulate me. Thanks! !!!

  • Laurie

    Laurie

    June 8th, 2014 at 5:03 AM

    I learned the hard way… burying it doesn’t give you a hall pass on the effects. Your body will act out on things buried and stored, even if not consciously remembered. I have been struggling with anxiety and PTSD for several weeks over things I have always just figured an approach of “well… You just take a deep breath and keep on keeping on” was a coping mechanism. Lesson learned… At some point, my body refused to “keep on” even though my mind and logic had laid out the steps and behaviors to do so.

    See a good counselor or therapist. You CAN heal.

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