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How are trauma memories different from normal memories?

If we imagine that our minds are like a cupboard with various shelves and rails, then our memories will be like the things that we put in the cupboard. Most of the time, things are filed fairly neatly and in some form of order, like dresses and trousers on hangers, shoes on the bottom and t-shirts and jumpers folded on the shelves. It isn’t perfect, but there is a regularity to it so that you can find things you need when you want to, and sometimes you’ll come across things that you had completely forgotten about. This is how memories tend to work too.

But imagine you are suddenly given a huge super king size duvet and you need to put it away in a hurry. Maybe you want to hide it from someone or maybe the feathers inside it are poking out and making you itch and sneeze. There isn’t a space quite big enough for it, so you stuff it into the available gaps and shove the door closed on it, tucking the last corner in as you go. But it just won’t quite stay put and it keeps pushing the door open. No matter how much you try, it just doesn’t stay where you want it to. Or it stays there for a while, but as you go to get something else out of the cupboard, it tumbles out again, causing a mess and causing you discomfort and stress.

This duvet is a bit like trauma memories. We desperately want to lock them away, to forget about them and to prevent them from upsetting us. Yet they keep intruding into our lives when we don’t want them to, when we least expect them or when we are thinking about something that maybe has nothing really to do with it.

Yet we often just keep trying to keep them away, by pushing them away again. Avoiding them because they are very painful and scary, which is completely understandable.

Yet what we know is that in much the same way that the duvet won’t stop escaping, these thoughts will continue to pop out until we can put them into a more suitable storage place. So, with the duvet, we would get it out, maybe lay it out flat, fold it or even vacuum pack it and then place it in a space that is suitable for its shape and size. In doing this, we don’t get rid of the duvet – it is still there, but we have the power and option to take it out as and when we need and want to rather than it coming out of its own accord.

And so too, we need to do this with traumatic memories. In trauma focussed therapy, we access these memories in order to make sense of them, add different understandings and perspectives based on information we now have and then file them away in a way that will stop them from intruding on your life and causing distress in the same way. Of course, these memories will always be there – they are part of the story of your life. However, they will exist with less intensity, power and impact on your life.

Different trauma therapies work slightly differently in accessing trauma memories. Some like Trauma Focussed CBT will involve more talking through a traumatic memory whereas EMDR focusses more on images whilst undertaking eye movements (or other bilateral stimulation). The important thing to remember is that when doing trauma focused therapy, you are fully supported by your therapist and you are in control. It can be painful and exhausting, but it is like going through a tunnel in a train: the best thing you can do is keep going as this will help you to get to your destination sooner.