Why Do I Relive Painful Memories?

Sometimes, when I am alone – particularly during early morning hours – I recall certain past events with almost no effort on my part. Great ones, sad times, lost opportunities, stories of pain, courage, fear, and loss. Some that were negative are no longer so. I survived and now they tend to invoke a chuckle or two. 

In a small way, I’m reliving and recalling memories. I can smell the smells. I can feel the tension. I can feel it and see it. And I didn’t even try to recall either the good or the bad. They just appeared.

This is how traumatic memory works. You experience a trauma and later flashes of memory–painful, shocking, unwanted–appear after the subtlest of triggers. You do not merely remember it, you feel it. You taste it, as if it were happening again. They come in bits and pieces, flashes and images; rarely in a linear sequential fashion. Having such an experience does not mean you have PTSD but for those who do, this can be a frequent and unsettling occurrence combined with other symptoms like avoiding situations that might stimulate the memory or having a sort of heightened sense of alarm. 

While most good and bad memories fade and are replaced by new experiences, some memories consistently intrude into the present. Even when we tell ourselves, “We’re safe now. We are no longer in danger” or “You’re not a child anymore, you are grown up and don’t have to be afraid of being hit,” the memories and associated feelings keep coming. It is as if your logic and perceptions aren’t able to moderate the response.

Let me share an example. I had a pretty serious accident when I was 15 years old that involved a 40 foot fall and a lot of rocks. My left leg sustained a fracture and my right leg was shattered including a full dislocation of my ankle. To this day I cringe when I think about it. I remember watching live as Lawrence Taylor crushed Joe Theismann during Monday Night Football about a year after my accident and having waves of nausea flood over me. A few years later, I witnessed a partially dismembered leg and found myself on my knees throwing up. Or, when our daughter had surgery on her foot a couple of years ago, I blacked out just looking at an x-ray film of her foot while the Doctor shared with us how successful the surgery had been. That experience was more than 30 years ago. Yet still I react. I know a sports highlight film or an x-ray can’t injure me but it doesn’t seem to matter to my stomach. Sure, the reaction I have is minimal and faded compared to immediately after my accident. But it is not gone.

Why does this happen? What are the processes in play that keep us experiencing and reliving what may be old and distant–as if it were still present? What follows is brief and a relatively simplistic summary of two very complex processes. Use them to help you understand yourself or a friend and to increase your empathy for those trapped in such processes.

Memory and the Connected Self
Psychology focuses much of its work on the individual person–the self. However, the self never exists outside of social connections (or disconnections) with others which is why I find my training in family therapy to be so valuable. Our understanding of our self begins at birth with billions of interactions (smiles, frowns, words, touch, etc.) with others. As we develop and become aware of ourselves, we often have key experiences of success or failure that continue to shape our sense of self long into the future. Find someone with a powerful sense of failure and you will find someone who will struggle to interpret a success as such. Whether success or failure oriented, both outlooks form on the basis of how we perceive that others see us. It seems that shame and humiliation act as intensifiers making it hard to alter our sense of self even after corrective experiences. They turn me from “bad things happened to me” into “I am bad.”

Memory and the (dis)Connected Brain
In simplistic language, the brain is an amazingly connected and efficient organ firing constantly day and night. Memories are stored and accessed, intensified or eroded, and often altered through the firing of neurons. The efficient brain “learns” to access information quickly. Just as you no longer have to think about how you will floss your teeth, you also no longer have to consciously recall a memory–it just happens. Because multiple hormones and structures in the brain are involved in memory formation, it stands to reason that ignoring a life-altering memory (and the full-bodied experience of it) is next to impossible. Our brain is an incredible collection of systems: structures like the brainstem, amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus are evaluating and communicating (or not) with high-level processing within the cortex even before you know it. Thus, a memory and its reaction is already well-underway before a person can think and critique such a memory.

So, are we doomed to be controlled by our past?
No. There is ample evidence that we can form new connections and minimize intrusive and unwanted memories. The brain is plastic. It is adaptable and changeable. And yet, we are not in the age of the MiB neuralyzer. God does not usually remove us from our histories or make them so distant they have no effect on us. Adaptation takes time and energy and rarely is so complete that the person no longer feels anything when they recall a painful event (in fact, feeling nothing might be rather dangerous as it would be a denial of reality).

So, the next time you are beating yourself up for still struggling with the past (or are questioning why a loved one can’t move beyond a trauma), be gentle. Consider instead how you might develop a corrective response that accepts what has happened and gives opportunity for a new second response after the first automatic reaction.