So if you’ve been reading my recent blogs, you know I’ve been kind of going back to the basics of trauma and explaining that trauma is not actually “something really bad” happening to you. To paraphrase the founder of EMDR, the late Francine Shapiro
Trauma is not the size of the event, it’s where it gets stored.
Some memories “get stuck” in the emotional center or limbic system of our brains. I explain this in more detail in a previous blog called “What is Trauma Really?” You can find that right here:
But this begs the question “If it’s not the size of the event then, why do some memories get processed while others don’t?”
Today I wanted to go over the 3 reasons why memories don’t get processed and stay “stuck” in the limbic system or emotional center of your brain.
Drum roll please…
1. We all have a different genetic capacity to process memories.
It turns out, our neural networks (metaphorically) aren’t much different from our digestive systems. There’s a lot of variability from person to person in how well your system naturally functions.
You know how you have some friends who can go down to Mexico and eat the street food and never get sick?
But then you have other friends who can’t have one grain of gluten without having devastating consequences?
It’s very similar in our neural networks. This is why some people can be in a war zone and not develop PTSD, while others can be in a much less challenging environment and still have unprocessed memories.
Incidentally, this is what “being sensitive” really means. If you’re “sensitive” it means you (like me) are simply not a great processor. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you or that you have some character flaw. It just means your brain functions a little differently and things tend to stay stuck in your limbic system! Is that as freeing for you as it is for me??? To me this was life-changing to learn!
2. The emotional load of the event is too much for you to handle.
So of course the size of the event matters, but it’s just one factor and it’s very personal. It makes sense that more people would have undigested memories after 9/11 then after getting into a fender bender, right? But both could result in undigested memories.
It is very individual what is “too much to handle” for one person may be pretty easy for another.
For example, one person may really have a hard time processing the death of their dog and can even develop PTSD symptoms, while another person in the same family who is not as connected with the dog, may be fine. Every event that happens has very different emotional meanings and significance to each person….even if they’re living through the same event.
3. The event happens to you on a more vulnerable day.
Sometimes smaller events (what I call “ordinary trauma” happens to us on a day when we’re also struggling with a cold, or getting our period or during a week when we’ve had a lot of other stressors. This is particularly relevant right now. You may notice you are more reactive to things in your own life since the war started in the Ukraine. This is why. Everyone’s stress level is high because we’ve been dealing with SO many challenges over the past two years.
Very few of us are currently processing at our best. This is why the mental health of the world is at crisis level.
This is also why going through menopause is so dang hard for so many of us. With our hormones out of control and our body not able to do the things it used to and our kids growing up (my youngest just got his LICENSE this week) we are in a very fragile state! We just can’t process stuff like we could before. Many of my clients feel like they’re losing it!! It’s ok! It’s just a vulnerable time.
On the other hand if something happens to us on a day when we’ve exercised, spent time in meditation, eaten nourishing food and had a massage, that memory will process more easily.
This is why it’s SOOO frickin important to maintain your self care routines!! It actually makes you more resilient and able to process those events that happen in your life with a high emotional load.
This is also why our relationships are so important. If something terrible happens and we have a loved one come and give us a hug and assure us that everything will be ok, we are more likely to process that event.
I hope this helps you understand why memories don’t get processed. Here are a few ways you can help yourself to be a better processor so that when something with a high emotional load for you comes along you are more likely to process it.
1. Start and maintain a meditation practice (even if it’s 5 min).
2. Exercise daily (even if it’s a 20 min walk).
3. Dedicate time and a focus to self care practices, such as proper nutrition, sleep, sunlight, fun activities, rest, social connection.
4. See a doctor or naturopath to make sure your biology is balanced. When your hormones are working and you are physically healthy, your neural networks work better too!
5. Make sure you’re spending time with people you love who lift you up! I know you sometimes feel like isolating but now is not the time!
If you notice you are getting triggered more these days and easily upset, it may be time to seek help in processing the undigested events from your past, so that you are reacting to your life from the now, instead of from what remains stuck in the limbic system. If you want to talk through this, I am happy to help. Just hit reply and let me know what questions came up for you as you read this.
Until next time,