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  • Writer's pictureSamantha McMullen

How are trauma memories stored in the brain?

As an Art Therapist and therefor a visual person, it always helps me to use metaphor as a way of understanding complex systems. The brain is arguably the most complex system we have- and looking at an image of a text book style break down of the brain can be straight up overwhelming!

Because of this, I like to visualize the brain, as our "mental office." Personally, I like to imagine it as a 1950's "Mad Men" style office because *aesthetic* but any office will do. In this office there is a desk and filing cabinets, and on the desk an inbox and outbox.

Now, our brain is wired to organize and label information. This helps us understand the world and identify what is safe, and what is not. For example, when we are children we learn that a four legged fluffy thing is a dog, so our brain makes a file for that. Then we see a cat and wow does that confuse us at first, but we recover and make a new file for that. As we grow up our internal "filing systems" get more complex. Our brain is literally wired to "judge" things as it helps us understand our world. We label fire as "dangerous," and stealing as "bad." Judgement isn't innately a bad thing, it is a way we file through information. If we didn't have judgement, we wouldn't be able to differentiate cat from dog, or danger from safety.

In this way, information is coming into the brain and landing in the inbox, then getting labeled, put in the outbox, and filed in it's appropriate place in the ever expanding file cabinet. This is how we convert short term memory to long term memory.

Some memories are too repetitive and would be confusing to store, such as, "where I put my keys." If our brain kept a file on that, it would be so immense, that every time we try to think about where our keys are, we would have to sort through years and years of places we put our keys. Instead, our brain throws most of the "where I put my keys" memories in the trash- it figures, no information is better than too much information debilitating us. Though we might end up late for work, we would have been far later if we had to search every place we had ever left our keys in our home.

Memories of trauma however, cause a different predicament for the brain. Trauma is defined as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, assault, or natural disaster. Something happens, and our world is thrown up side down. Let's use an example of a car accident: June is 9 years old, and her dad is driving their Volkswagen bug when another car runs a light and hits them. June had previously filed away information on dad as safe and loving, and information about cars as fun as they usually take her to school or the park where she gets to play. This information shows up in the inbox of our mental desk, and our brain is stumped. Are cars now unsafe because that was so scary and daddy yelled and cursed? Is dad now not trust worthy because he was driving when it happened? Are other people dangerous because someone else was driving the other car? Is the park now bad because they were driving to the park when they got hit?

June's brain is desperately trying to understand the information it is receiving, but it is not as clear cut as other information. In the brain's confusion and overwhelm, it does what any of us do at work when we are stumped with something- it leaves it on the desk to deal with later.

The problem with traumatic memories, if that they often stay on the desk. This causes symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares and increased stress hormones in the body. June might feel like she can't relax, can't focus at school or enjoy time with her friends. How could she? Her brain is stuck with these traumatic memories, with no logical way to organize them, so it feels like trauma keeps happening, day after day.

As time goes by, June's brain may just decide to do what many of us do with that file that has been on our desks too long, shove it a drawer to get it out of sight, or say "fuck it" and put it through the shredder. The thing is though, when what document is shredded, our brain doesn't throw it away- it knows that what happened was scary and is wired to keep us safe- that kind of information is important. Perhaps it tries to "split the difference," and instead blows the shredded bits of paper all around the office, so that little pieces of the memory are scattered among multiple files: dad, cars, safety, school, park, childhood, friends etc...

This can result in what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy calls "Cognitive Distortions" which the American Psychological Association defines as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception or belief.” In June's case perhaps this means her brain jumping to conclusions that "Driving is not safe," or "If I go to the park I might die." These distortions are attempts from the brain to keep June safe.

We can see how easy it is for our "mental office" to become a place that is messy, unorganized and confusing. This shows up as symptoms of PTSD, Depression, Anxiety and other "mental illnesses" aka labels for symptoms of trauma. In order to heal from trauma, our brain needs to be able to understand the traumatic memories and organize them effectively in narrative form. Until then, June may feel "stuck in trauma."

The beautiful thing is, we know that it is possible to heal the brain. Through Mindfulness and Evidenced Based Treatments for Trauma like CPT, EMDR and TCYM we can "clean up the mental office" and thus be able to let trauma memories be stored completely in the past, so that we, like June, can live fully in the present and feel safe in our own bodies.

If you are interested in learning more about healing from trauma, please contact me through my website, email me at or call me at 818-465-8516.

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