What Do We Do With Memories?
In last week’s article, we examined the different types of memories, how they are formed, and how they are stored. We discussed why healing painful and traumatic memories is not simply a matter of remembering, feeling and reliving a past experience. Reliving past memories can result in new trauma that causes more pain and instability. Healing comes by observing our patterns of behavior, which tells us more about our past that the “memories” we recite. Instead of reliving and re-experiencing the events and feelings, we face them through a gradual process of visiting the sensory elements of past memories.
Memories get stuck inside of us because the experience is overwhelming. When over-activation occurs, the survival instinct kicks in and the part of the brain that creates and stores memories shuts down. That means, in these moments of over-activation, we do not have the ability to adequately process what is happening and what it means. Time stamping and storing the event in a safe place is not biologically possible.
Rather than being able to take action on our own behalf or having someone who can help us, we are left alone in a helpless position. We are emotionally, physically and sensorily overwhelmed and over-activated. In this state, there is no way to take effective action on our own behalf.
In order to process these memories, you renegotiate and reconsolidate the events that happened. The goal is to bring the part of you that was frozen in that moment in time, into the here and now. You are going back as an adult and rescuing that wounded child.
Processing old memories entails restoring and completing healthy action responses, so that we are able to move from helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness into action, power and a sense of control over one’s life. When this happens, life becomes about the here and now rather than about the past. Current events can be seen as the person you are now rather than through the lens of past experiences.
The last step in this process is being able to connect the reprocessed memories with specific episodes in one’s past and with narrative memory so that there is a more cohesive understanding of one’s history.
When Sylvia was seven her family home was destroyed by a fire. As it happened, Sylvia stood outside of her house and watched it burn. She saw the flames, smelled the smoke and felt the heat of the fire. She could taste the fumes. She listened to the snaps, the crackles and pops of the fire.
No one was hurt, and the family was able to reestablish their lives. There was a plate hanging on the wall in her mother’s kitchen, the only surviving relic of the fire. The fire was never talked about in the family.
As an adult, she hated the taste of food cooked on a grill, and could not bare to be in a room with a fireplace, see the flames, feel the heat, or hear the sounds. She felt an anxiety she could not explain when she was around open flames of any kind. She had no idea why these experiences distressed her.
After a weekend at a friend’s mountain cabin, she talked about being anxious while having a great time. She was confused and curious about the experience. As she told the story of the weekend, she began to experience sensations in her body.
Sylvia was curious about what was going on in her body and mind. This is where the process begins - with curiosity about your emotional and physical reactions. Peter Levine developed the SIBAM model, which has proven to be an effective way to track and process the sensory responses activated by memories. This is a tool you can use to help yourself when faced with activated memories. It centers on five ways to gather, interpret, and react to information.
The information that you gather from your body. This is what your body is feeling on the inside and outside. Some examples: butterflies in the stomach, heart racing, neck hurts, foot tingles.
This includes being aware of the images created by all your senses, not just your eyes. It is the impressions you have of what is happening, and how scents, textures and sounds create an experience. Examples: smelled like a lemon, sounded like bells, feels rough like gravel.
Take note of any observable behavior and/or body signals, such as involuntary/voluntary movement, emotional/facial expression, posture. They can be implicit or explicit, and could be linked to states and memories internally. Examples: turning away from what is happening, wrapping your arms around yourself, hitting something, being frozen in place.
What is your emotional experience? This can be as simple as registering emotions of fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, disgust and joy, as well as noting any nuanced emotions you observe and feel.
This is your narrative - the conscious and unconscious, verbal and nonverbal, story you tell about yourself, others and the event.
To use the experience of Sylvia when she was around a fireplace, she would have the sensation of heat. She saw the image of orange flames that made snapping, crackling and popping noises. The smells coming from the fire and the fear she felt combined to make her feel nauseous. She became frozen as she watched the fire in helpless fear and confusion. On an unconscious level, the meaning she gave to this event was that all fire would cause damage and harm that she could not prevent.
As she discovered the connection between the past experience and her current feelings, she was able to help herself manage these situations with more comfort and ease.
The questions in this process will help you discover past events that color you present life. These questions will lead to an experience where the old events can be transformed so that you can live more fully in the here and now.