Every human being — not just those including army veterans and victims of abuse — struggles to process the information taken in moments of crisis. Under normal circumstances, people don’t choose to put themselves in the way of danger, but those who come face to face with death can face serious repercussions based on their mind’s way of adapting to adversity.
Within the memory system known as “working memory”, we receive new information and encode it so that it can be stored long-term when it does not need to be used. This process is known as “consolidation”, and when it is interrupted, memories do not become stored — but they don’t just “vanish”, either.
In case you weren’t familiar with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), here are a few:
- Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
- Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
- Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered. (thanks to the ADAA)
Because the memory is never formed or dealt with and processed, it is forced to come back to haunt you. Neuroscienctists have admitted that memories are not stagnant and isolated from the rest of our consciousness; instead, they are malleable and susceptible to alteration.
When we recollect, we “reconsolidate” our long-term memories: this means that we bring what used to be in our subconscious into conscious awareness, where the memory is (physically, but the cause is otherwise unknown) manipulated. While memories are being remembered they are also being made “unstable”, so the mind has to add or remove something from them in order to stabilize them again for storage and future recollection. Keep in mind that this process is NOT exclusive to any disorder — it is something that happens each and every time we think of the past.
Now, just as it takes time to learn a new skill, it takes time to reconsolidate a memory (as in several hours); but when one recollects a painful memory of a traumatic event, the stored information is so “hot” and emotionally overwhelming that it cannot be processed in the normal way. Instead, the mind avoids the information. The memory does not degrade, but remains fresh and intrusive.
This process can also be interfered with, resulting in a confused mess of information that never got the chance to be worked through. The threat of death is an especially influential interference, and increases one’s risk factor of being diagnosed with PTSD.
The latest treatment for PTSD is called “Exposure Therapy” and consists of the traumatized person coming in repeated contact with the frightening thing. Confrontation with the repressed anxiety causes the person to realize that it is not the anxiety that is dangerous and so it does not need to be avoided by refusing to remember the traumatic event. The protocol, however, is not extremely effective and can sometimes be harmful and traumatic in itself, depending on the way it is carried out.
To conclude — one should not put too much faith in their own memory or avowal of past experience. What happened in the past is done with, and the most important thing is to focus on the present!