A Guide On How To Deal With Traumatic Memories

Memories sculpt who we are and how we interact with our environment. While many of our accumulated memories are helpful or pleasant, some memories can be distressing.¹ 

Memories of war, natural disasters, abuse, and sexual violence can cause adverse effects on the mind, causing severe emotional and psychological trauma.² This can leave us feeling unsafe, stressed, irritable, and depressed. 

Memories that induce these feelings can be defined as traumatic memories.

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What are traumatic memories?

Traumatic memories are often retained in the subconscious until specific stimuli trigger them.³ 

Triggers can include places, sensations, emotions, and people. For example, if you experienced a traumatic event at a concert, being in a crowd may act as a trigger. Triggers cause the memory to become salient and can mean the person feels like they’re reliving the event. 

This can induce psychological and physiological symptoms such as issues regulating negative emotions, increased heart rate, nervousness, and sweating.

Some people try to avoid these feelings by blocking out traumatic memories. While this can help symptoms improve in the short term, it can worsen the issue over time. 

Trauma and childhood

Many people don’t realize how traumatic memories affect them, especially in the case of childhood trauma. When children experience trauma, it can present in different ways, such as inattentiveness, hyperactivity, or irritability. 

This can be exacerbated as children are less able to communicate their emotions and may lack the cognitive capacity to explain and cope with what happened to them. 

Children can also repress their trauma,⁴ a defense mechanism where the memory is effectively forgotten (relegated to the subconscious). Sometimes memories may resurface, but this is considered rare. If, however, children remember traumatic events, this can negatively affect them throughout their adult life. 

PTSD and traumatic memories

People who experience disturbing traumatic events don’t necessarily develop post-traumatic stress disorder⁵ (PTSD); however, some do. PTSD occurs when the person doesn’t recover from a traumatic event. It involves symptoms including:

  • flashbacks of the traumatic event

  • avoidance of stimuli related to the event

  • memory loss

  • Irritability

  • Impulsivity

  • being easily startled

People who develop PTSD often require professional help through psychotherapy and/or medication. 

How to deal with traumatic memories: 6 strategies

Despite the possibly overwhelming nature of traumatic memories, many strategies can help you cope. Here are six of them.

1. Identify possible triggers

While it may feel like traumatic memories are constantly in your head, you might be able to push them out of your awareness most of the time. 

However, certain internal or external stimuli⁶ (triggers) can cause you to recall such memories again. The specificity of these triggers depends on the traumatic memory itself. 

While some memories have more general triggers, such as loud noise or crowded environments, others are triggered by more specific stimuli, such as a particular house or scent.

If you can identify your triggers, you may be able to avoid them and, as such, avoid triggering unpleasant memories. 

However, if the triggers are more general, this may be difficult. In this case, identifying the trigger is still helpful as you can practice calming techniques such as grounding (focusing on the present), breathing exercises, and flashback halting protocol. 

Flashback halting protocol is a technique used to stop the flashback before it comes; the process brings you back to the present. 

Researchers suggest that triggers can be reassociated with different memories.⁷ Relinking such triggers to positive memories or feelings can reduce the effect traumatic memory has on your life

2. Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy⁸ is a common form of psychotherapy that aims to expose individuals to their fears. A mental health professional helps you confront traumatic memories in a safe environment and learn effective coping strategies. 

Many studies have demonstrated the efficacy of exposure therapy. One study showed that exposure therapy could reduce PTSD symptoms in female veterans. 

Narrative exposure⁹ is another form of exposure therapy that involves an individual telling the story of their entire life rather than just repeating the one traumatic event. This technique has shown efficacy, especially in refugees¹⁰ and those who have experienced war and torture. 

3. Propanolol

Propanolol¹¹ is a beta-blocker with multiple uses, most notably in this case, for anxiety and traumatic memory treatment. 

A 2018 study examining the treatment of PTSD revealed that propanol, in combination with a memory recall session over six weeks, effectively reduced PTSD symptomology,¹² indicating its efficacy in lowering traumatic memory recall.

It’s important to emphasize here not to rely entirely on a drug such as propranolol for treating traumatic memories. Other studies have demonstrated that propranolol effectively reduces traumatic memory reactivation, but it’s no more effective than a placebo. 

4. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)¹³ is psychotherapy that aims to reduce the pain of traumatic memories. 

Such treatment involves sessions with a therapist where you move your eyes to follow a clinician’s hand movements while recalling your traumatic memory/memories. This process is controversial due to its unusual nature; however, a body of research¹⁴ supports its effectiveness.

Some researchers suggest,⁷ however, that only treatment approaches that involve exposure currently have enough research support to be considered efficacious. 

5. Cannabidiol treatment

Myriad research¹⁵ suggests that memory storage is a dynamic process. For example, remembering traumatic memories can trigger the reconsolidation of that memory, meaning it’s more ingrained in our brain and less likely to be forgotten. 

Some researchers have theorized that if we block the memory reconsolidation process, such traumatic memories can be weakened and eventually forgotten. 

A 2012 study¹⁶ suggested that cannabidiol (CBD) effectively blocks the reconsolidation of negative memories. The study demonstrated that the administration of CBD can disrupt fear-related memories and that these memories don’t spontaneously recover. 

6. Seeing a mental health professional

When seeing a mental health professional, you might be guided in implementing many of the abovementioned tactics. However, therapy also involves sharing traumatic events¹⁷ in a safe and supportive therapeutic environment. This can help many people work through what happened to them and build upon the next steps. 

Such steps could involve medication often designed to combat depression,¹⁸ sleep issues, and anxiety associated with PTSD. 

This process could also involve building a support network of people you trust that can help you through your traumatic periods.

While not everyone needs professional help for their traumatic memories, it’s important to seek help when you need it. If your traumatic memories negatively impact your day-to-day life or you meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, it may be time to seek professional help.

The lowdown

Traumatic memories can be very distressing, mainly when they manifest as PTSD. 

However, many methods to cope with trauma are available, including managing triggers, certain therapies, medications, and strategies for dealing in the moment. Your trauma does not define you. Recovery from traumatic memories is possible with the proper treatment and care.

  1. Understanding and treating unwanted trauma memories in posttraumatic stress disorder (2010)

  2. Post-traumatic stress disorder: The neurobiological impact of psychological trauma (2022)

  3. The nature of intrusive memories after trauma: The warning signal hypothesis (2002)

  4. Memories of childhood abuse | American Psychological Association

  5. What is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? | American Psychiatric Association

  6. Intrusive memories of trauma: A target for research bridging cognitive science and its clinical application (2019)

  7. Emerging interventions for PTSD: Future directions for clinical care and research (2011)

  8. What is exposure therapy? | Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

  9. Narrative exposure therapy (NET) | Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

  10. A comparison of narrative exposure therapy, supportive counseling, and psychoeducation for treating posttraumatic stress disorder in an african refugee settlement (2004)

  11. Propranolol | NHS

  12. Reduction of PTSD symptoms with pre-reactivation propranolol therapy: A randomized controlled trial (2018)

  13. What is EMDR? | EMDR Institute Inc.

  14. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and the anxiety disorders: Clinical and research implications of an integrated psychotherapy treatment (1999)

  15. The role of reconsolidation and the dynamic process of long-term memory formation and storage (2011)

  16. On disruption of fear memory by reconsolidation blockade: Evidence from cannabidiol treatment (2012)

  17. A clinician’s guide to PTSD treatments for returning veterans (2011)

  18. Treatment of PTSD a handout | National Center for PTSD

Other sources:

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