As a therapist specializing in trauma and PTSD in Greenwood Village, Denver, I've worked with many people dealing with the strong effects of PTSD and trauma. One thing that comes up often is "trauma blocking," where distressing memories are buried deep in the mind, raising concerns about memory loss, brain changes, and the chance to recover. In this blog post, we'll explore these questions to help understand the complexities of trauma and its impact on the brain.
Does Trauma Blocking Cause Memory Loss?
Trauma blocking, often known colloquially as repressed memories, is a defense mechanism that allows our brain to cope with overwhelming and traumatic experiences in the moment that we are not able to process. During an intense event, the brain may suppress memories as a way to protect us from the full emotional impact. For example, it’s not uncommon for victims of childhood sexual abuse to forget that it happened until much later in life. This is what differentiates trauma blocking or repression from amnesia. These memories are stored in the subconscious mind and can resurface through triggers later in life or therapeutic interventions. For example, although we may not remember exactly what happened, we may feel strange at a particular time of day due to the way the light shines in the evening, or be repelled by smells that ignite a strong fear response.
Is Trauma Blocking Okay?
It’s not that it’s not okay, or that it is okay. It’s more so that it serves a function in order for us to survive in the moment. Trauma blocking is a protective mechanism. In the short term, it helps us navigate life after a traumatic event without becoming overwhelmed by an intense response. However, in the long term, suppressing trauma can lead to unresolved emotional issues and may hinder the healing process. Therefore, while trauma blocking can be seen as a survival strategy, addressing and processing traumatic memories in a safe therapeutic setting is essential for long-term emotional well-being.
How Do You Treat Complex Trauma in Adults?
It is never too late to begin the healing process from complex trauma, even if the traumatic experiences occurred a long time ago and you did not have access to play therapy as a child. While play therapy can be beneficial for children, there are various therapeutic approaches available for adults to address complex trauma effectively.
Healing from complex trauma involves understanding that the impact of past experiences can still be addressed and transformed. Therapists who specialize in trauma work with adults using evidence-based approaches specifically designed for adult clients. These approaches focus on creating a safe therapeutic space, fostering trust, and promoting healing.
Therapy for complex trauma in adults often includes talk therapy, where you can engage in conversations with your therapist to explore your thoughts, emotions, and memories associated with the traumatic experiences. We help you develop a deeper understanding of how the trauma has influenced your life and support you in developing coping strategies, emotional regulation skills, and new perspectives.
While play therapy is more commonly used with children, adults can also benefit from creative therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy, or dance/movement therapy. These modalities provide alternative avenues for expression and exploration of emotions and experiences.
What Part of the Brain Blocks Trauma?
The brain regions associated with memory blocking in response to trauma include the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is responsible for memory consolidation, while the amygdala plays a role in processing emotions, particularly fear and anxiety. Traumatic memories may get "stuck" in these areas, leading to recurring distress and emotional responses associated with the traumatic event.
Trauma blocking, often known colloquially as repressed memories, is a defense mechanism that allows our brain to cope with overwhelming and traumatic experiences in the moment that we are not able to process
What Happens to the Memory When It Is Repressed?
When traumatic memories are repressed or blocked, they are not erased from the brain but rather stored in the subconscious mind. These memories can influence emotions, behaviors, and reactions to certain triggers, even if the individual is not consciously aware of them. Unresolved trauma can manifest in various ways, such as anxiety, panic attacks, or unexplained emotional outbursts.
Imagine a couple, Lucas and Lara, who are generally happy and have a tranquil relationship. One day, during a casual conversation, Lara makes an off-handed comment to John, saying, "Why are you so mean to me?" This comment seems out of place and unrelated to the current conversation, leaving Lucas puzzled and hurt.
Unbeknownst to both of them, Lara’s comment might be rooted in lingering old trauma from her past. Perhaps in a previous relationship or during childhood, Lara experienced mistreatment or emotional neglect, leaving her with unresolved feelings of hurt and vulnerability.
Now, when Lucas unintentionally does something that triggers memories or emotions associated with that past trauma, Lara’s subconscious mind may react defensively. She may unconsciously project those unresolved feelings onto Lucas, leading to her comment about him being mean.
How Do You Rewire Your Brain After Trauma?
Trauma-informed therapies, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy (SP) and Prolonged Exposure (PE), can help you rewire your brain after trauma. These therapies focus on processing traumatic memories and changing negative thought patterns, allowing the brain to create new neural connections associated with healing and resilience.
Trauma blocking is a protective mechanism. In the short term, it helps us navigate life after a traumatic event without becoming overwhelmed by an intense response. However, in the long term, suppressing trauma can lead to unresolved emotional issues and may hinder the healing process.
How Do You Unlock Repressed Memories on Your Own?
I don’t quite recommend this. Attempting to unlock repressed memories without professional guidance can be risky and potentially retraumatizing. However, sometimes we can’t really help it. If this is you, these are some steps you can take until you find someone to help you through a repressed painful memory.
Repressed memories can deeply affect our bodies, often causing us to feel easily dysregulated. To navigate these feelings, it's essential to recognize the type of bodily response you experience during these moments. Do you find yourself hyperventilating and overwhelmed with anxiety? Or do you feel frozen and unable to move or react? If you resonate with the first response, a grounding technique like 5-4-3-2-1 can be beneficial. This technique helps bring you back to the present moment by engaging your senses. On the other hand, if you identify with the frozen response, gentle tapping on your arms and legs can serve as a gentle way to "wake up" your body and bring you within your window of tolerance, where you can feel more in control and centered. By understanding and utilizing these personalized grounding methods, you can create a sense of safety and stability during moments of dysregulation until you find more help.
Does Your Brain Rewire Itself After Trauma?
Yes, the brain has a remarkable capacity for neuroplasticity, meaning it can reorganize and form new neural connections throughout life. After trauma, the brain can undergo positive changes through therapy and self-care practices. By engaging in trauma-focused therapies, individuals can rewire their brains to create healthier responses to triggers and reduce the impact of traumatic memories on their daily lives.
Where Does Trauma Get Stuck in the Brain?
Trauma often gets "stuck" in the brain's limbic system, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The amygdala processes emotional responses, the hippocampus is involved in memory consolidation, and the prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making and emotional regulation. Disruptions in these brain regions can lead to heightened emotional responses, memory difficulties, and difficulties regulating emotions after trauma.
What Triggers Repressed Memories?
As mentioned above, repressed memories can be triggered by various things, such as specific sights, sounds, smells, or other sensory stimuli associated with the traumatic event. Emotional triggers, stressors, or experiences that remind individuals of the trauma may also prompt the resurfacing of repressed memories. Don’t be surprised if these come up at random times!
How Long Does Trauma Last in the Brain?
The duration of trauma's impact on the brain varies from person to person. Without intervention, trauma's effects can be long-lasting, leading to ongoing distress and difficulties in daily life. However, with appropriate treatment and support, individuals can experience significant improvements in their symptoms and overall well-being over time.
As a trauma-specialized therapist with a private practice in Greenwood Village, Denver, I have had the privilege of working with many courageous individuals who have experienced PTSD and trauma. Understanding trauma blocking and how it affects memory and brain function is a crucial aspect of my work. I am deeply committed to providing a safe and empathetic environment for my clients, where they can feel comfortable exploring their traumatic experiences without judgment.