By Deborah Kennard, MS, PTI Founder
When you hear the word “memory” what comes to mind? Maybe it’s something positive, like a fond memory from your childhood. Or maybe the word “memory” activates for you a string of unpleasant life events. Either way, the word itself activates in your system a network of stored perceptions and experiences.
Memories are just that: stored perceptions about our experiences. Memories are not necessarily factual. In fact, they rarely represent what we would call “the truth.” Rather, what we recall is influenced and altered by our past perceptions and our present circumstances.
For years mental health clinicians have understood that traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain than more typical memories.
Brain imaging confirms that when an experience is traumatic or overwhelms a person, the memory of that experience is stored in a way that connects it more closely with the autonomic nervous system.
Clinicians witness this dysfunctional storage with their clients who struggle with intrusive memories. These memories manifest for the client as fragments of the past traumatic event and can be triggered by related or seemingly unrelated stimuli. When a traumatic memory intrudes, the client’s body reacts: their autonomic nervous system is aroused and in this arousal the client reacts as if the event is happening or about to happen at any moment.
The autonomic nervous system acts largely unconsciously and regulates the large muscle groups and internal organs. The autonomic nervous system controls our respiration, our heart rate, and our digestion, among other functions. It is commonly known as the instigator of our “flight or fight” response. The autonomic nervous system comes into play not only when we are in actual peril, but it is also triggered by the mere mental recollection of a traumatic or overwhelming event. Therefore this automatic physiological reaction appears as an over-reaction to the events that are happening in the present. It is an over-reaction because there is not a current danger in the present moment. Though the danger isn’t ‘real’ the physiological reaction is very much real and in turn it causes the perceived danger to feel real.
When this occurs we are actually in a loop of reactivity between the body and the mind. The mind is reacting to the body sensations and the body sensations are reacting to the mind. The physiological, biochemical reaction and the fear are all real, even when the actual danger is not real. So when a client’s memory system is activated in the safety of their therapist’s office where they logically know there is no danger, the danger comes to feel real due to the reaction happening between their body’s autonomic nervous system and their mind. This loop gets stronger and more entrenched each time it surfaces as well as each time the client reacts with an aversion to the loop. They hate it and want to make it go away. However, this unprocessed loop cannot be made to go away, but it can be processed with curiosity, mindfulness and an increased awareness of the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness is one tool for helping expand our ability to have an awareness of the present moment. Self-awareness is being aware of oneself, including one’s behaviors, feelings, patterns, and character traits.
Wilhem Wundt, known as the Father of Psychology, first used the term “introspection” to refer to a technique where he taught people to closely and objectively examine the content of their own thoughts. Wundt believed that the mind was made up of two key components: sensation and feeling. Sensations occur when a sense organ is stimulated. Sensations are always accompanied by feelings. Self-observation is a way to see the present moment unfolding. The act itself of observing one’s sensations and corresponding feelings puts a delay to the reactivity of the autonomic response.
As we bring attention to our body sensation when we feel something disturbing, and begin to notice the pattern and interplay between the various aspects of our experience, we are beginning to infuse the truth of the present moment into the experience.
For example, if someone was in a car accident in the past they may be activated by just the idea of ever driving again. When thinking about driving they would have the sensation of their autonomic nervous system being activated and the feeling of fear or panic.
If they could bring attention to the body sensation of their system being activated and become curious about their emotional reaction, rather than resistant, then the reality of the present moment– the actual safety of their current situation– would make itself known.
The loop would be altered: the body sensation of the past does not necessarily have to be linked to the present feeling. The mind can respond differently: it can respond with self-agency, or the ability to act intentionally and with an awareness of actions being self-generated. Self-agency is akin to self-control. With self-agency, we are not a victim of the world or the at the whim of the circumstances we face in life: we have more control than that. We are able to respond instead of reacting.
As we practice mindfulness we are increasing both awareness and our ability to have self-control, as we react less and respond more. As we expand in this way we are able to see the truth of the moment as it is and not as we misperceive it.
If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy joining me for the free monthly webinar I am offering. You can register here. Register Here.