Memory Reconsolidation: Shift Trauma Memories To The Past Transformational change entails making peace with our traumatic memories

Memory Reconsolidation: Shift Trauma Memories To The Past

Memory reconsolidation is an important aspect of trauma healing. Remembering, accepting, making sense, and shifting those painful memories where they belong – in the past.

You don’t forget traumatic memories, however, it moves into long-term memory where even when you remember them, you will no longer feel physiologically triggered. You may momentarily think,  I survived that shit, but you no longer feel searing visceral pain thinking about it – thank goodness that was  5, 10, or 30 years ago

When that happens you really know you’ve healed.

According to the latest neuroscience studies, there is a brain area, the zona incerta, below the thalamus(the relay center) above the brain stem that is involved in the process in which we learn to put these stressful memories aside.

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to find that magic switch in the zona incerta that would shift painful memories into the dustbin of the past.

Memory Reconsolidation: Shift Trauma Memories To The Past
Memory reconsolidation is critical to move past our painful memories

Differences In Our Mental Make-up

There is no quick-fix, easy method for memory reconsolidation. Everyone is different and each of us has varied types, degrees, and layers of trauma. Inexplicably, what may be severe trauma for one person may have minimal effect on another person.

Additionally, our innate temperament our age, and our gender determined how we dealt with our dysfunctional family dynamics by fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning.

Everyone Processes Stress Differently

How we process/adapt to stressful experiences influences how we encode trauma memories and the subsequent symptoms we develop.

Some of us totally repress them (particularly if it’s childhood sexual abuse). On the other hand, if the abuse is extremely severe, a child’s psyche may be spilt into different personalities (dissociative identity disorder[DID], which was once called multiple personality disorder), each holding one part of the trauma.

Dr. Darlene McLaughlin, psychiatrist and trauma expert, explains how your mind may help you get through a traumatic event.

“…there is a threshold of trauma where the human brain cannot overcome without dissociation,”

Although your brain automatically stores your experiences into a form of memory, there are times when it ‘walls off’ a memory of a traumatic experience—for its own good.

 Often times environmental cues can trigger repressed traumatic memories.

In general people with CPTSD tend to have three clusters of symptoms: hypervigilance to threat (elevated startle response, extreme anxiety), avoidance of triggers (people, places, and things), and intrusion (flashbacks, nightmares).

Shame-filled  Sexual Abuse Memories Suppressed

In my own case, I didn’t remember memories of my evil aunt accusing me of trying to seduce her ugly lascivious husband. I was 13 years, still struggling with the loss of my mother, dealing with an abusive father, and being sexually molested by a much older cousin.

Post my mother’s death I had to survive such a traumatizingly different environment; the false accusation was the final straw. It literally broke my back – I developed scoliosis. Our bodies keep a score.

I remained frozen in time. Emotionally, I was a 13-year-old for most of my adult life.

Memories of the past came flooding in when I had a breakdown at 29, however, I was unable to process the memories as the environment was as bad as my childhood home. For years I was stuck in distressing rumination cycles.

Only in the past 5 years have I been able to feel safe and supported. This has been instrumental in being able to process and integrate the trauma memories stuck in my amygdala into long-term memory. And this has helped me feel emotionally grown up.

Different From Normal Memories

It seems trauma memories are encoded differently compared to normal memories.  When we encounter a stressful situation, the brain activates a different system to form and suppress memories.  But it is fragmented rather than unified memory.

That’s the reason why people who’ve experienced trauma may remember just images of moments. They may remember sounds, smells, visceral responses, and flashes of an image, but not all the details that went before or after.

Once our fear circuitry takes over, it dictates where our attention goes.  Furthermore, our episodic (autobiographical) memory also shuts down. This leads to an incomplete and fragmented sequence of memories.

Traumatic memories are fragmented engrams of our life story.

Memory Engrams

The term “engram” was coined by memory researcher Richard Semon to explain how memory was stored. In response to external stimuli, the brain undergoes biochemical changes, imprinting the experience in different areas of the brain in a congruent sequence.

Brain parts such as the cerebellum, striatum, cerebral cortex, hippocampus, and amygdala are thought to play an important role in memory. For example, the hippocampus is believed to be involved in spatial and declarative memory, as well as consolidating short-term into long-term memory.

Studies have shown that declarative memories move between the limbic system, deep within the brain, and the outer, cortical regions. These are distinct from the mechanisms of the more primitive cerebellum, which dominates in the blinking response and receives the input of auditory information directly. It does not need to connect to other brain structures for assistance in forming some memories of simple association.

Different Types Of Memory

Explicit Memory

For explicit memory, we need the hippocampus. It is responsible for integrating the raw sensory data into a coherent picture, putting a time tag on it, and transferring it into long-term episodic memory, where it can be retrieved later. Over time, when memory is consolidated, its long-term storage is distributed in different parts of the neocortex. There are 2 aspects.

1)Semantic Memory – The memory of general knowledge and facts. Trauma can prevent information (like words, images, sounds, etc.) from different parts of the brain from combining to make a semantic memory.

2)Episodic (Autobiographical ) Memory – The autobiographical memory of an event or experience – including the who, what, and where.

Implicit Memory

Implicit memory, also called procedural or sensorimotor memory, refers to behavioral knowledge of an experience without conscious recall. It is not a memory we can reflect on or think about. These memories are impossible to verbalize. They are often fragmented in time, and for the most part consist of primary sensory information (images, smells, sounds) that are linked to physiological fear symptoms. Here again, there are 2 aspects.

1) Emotional Memory – The memory of the emotions you felt during an experience.

2)Procedural Memory – The memory of how to perform a  common task without actively thinking. Procedural memories connected to unwanted or abusive childhood experiences are our maladaptive survival strategies. People pleasing, and OCD, are some examples.

Trauma affects both our implicit and explicit memories which in turn alters our schemas and how we view ourselves and our relationship with the world.

The Hippocampus and The Amygdala

The hippocampus and the amygdala are two key brain structures that encode memory.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is responsible for threat detection. It also plays a key role in decision-making, motivation, emotional reactivity, and memory processing.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps memories shift from the limbic system into long-term memory. It is responsible for integrating the raw sensory data into a coherent picture, putting a time tag on it, and transferring it into long-term episodic memory, where it can be retrieved later. Over time, when memory is consolidated, its long-term storage is distributed in different parts of the neocortex.

Memory encoding for conscious explicit memory gets inhibited or blocked by intense amygdala activation and the release of stress hormones.

Memory Encoded During Trauma

When we encounter a threat, our bodies go into a stress response of either fight-flight-freeze-fawn.  Our adrenaline spikes and our cortisol increases to dampen down the adrenaline. An increase in cortisol shuts off our hippocampus.

This effectively keeps trauma memories along with overwhelming sensory information locked into our emotional (limbic) brain. Furthermore, our emotional brain has no sense of time. That means even though months and years may have passed we feel it is just there currently. We continue living in our past.

Additionally, traumatic memories in the limbic system often don’t have a full storyline because the part of our brain that creates full storylines is our cortex (cognitive brain).

Enhanced traumatic memory coexists with incomplete/fragmented memory

Neuroplasticity and Change

Earlier, the general assumption was once we are past our childhood our brains became fixed – we were stuck in the toxic legacy of our childhood environment.

However, recent brain research has shown that our brain is neuroplastic. That under certain conditions, we can not only unlock faulty neural pathways but actually erase them and substitute new learning.

Memory Reconsolidation

Memory reconsolidation is the brain’s neural process that can produce transformational change. It is the permanent overwriting of an acquired behavior or emotional response.

In the reconsolidation process, a target learning is first rendered revisable at the level of its neural encoding, and then revision of its encoding is brought about either through new learning or chemical agents.

Psychedelics like ayahuasca and magic mushrooms are said to do this.

Four  Key Factors For Memory Reconsolidation


Feeling safe in the presence of an enlightened witness is crucial before we begin to untangle the knotted threads of our painful past. Our amygdala needs to down-regulate or calm down. Or else the somatic sensations linked to the traumatic event will overwhelm us and we will get retraumatized.

Three Step Process

Therapeutically there is a 3-step process for an implicit memory to be unwired:

1) Fully reactivate the target implicit memory.

2) While the target memory is fully reactivated, promptly create an additional, concurrent experience that sharply mismatches (contradicts and disconfirms) it.

3) The moment of viscerally felt contradiction/ juxtaposition, new learning that unlearns, rewrites, and replaces the unlocked target learning.

Our brain is capable of change in the right environment. We can unwire our brain and rewire it to overcome our faulty emotional learnings.

Sometimes, the change can be instantaneous, however often it takes regular repetitive rewiring of our neural circuits.

Therapy To Facilitate Reconsolidation

Most therapies aim at memory reconsolidation. One may have to check out through trial and error what best works for you.

1) Coherence Therapy

Coherence therapy was founded by Bruce Ecker and Laurel Hulley in the 1990s.  It works on the concept that getting to the root of the problem (implicit memories) is the best and fastest way to alleviate a person’s problems/issues.

2) EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)

During EMDR, patients are guided to perform lateral eye movements mimicking REM sleep (therefore turning off norepinephrine), allowing patients to access traumatic events without emotion. However, it is most successful for single-event trauma, like a car crash, robbery, etc. – not prolonged experiences like childhood abuse.

3) Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT)

During  Rapid Resolution Therapy (RRT), emotional blocks are discovered and cleared through direct communication with the subconscious mind. Counterproductive programs are replaced and updated by newfound wisdom, resetting the mind for lasting positive change.

4) Narrative exposure therapy (NET)

Narrative exposure therapy (NET) empowers trauma and abuse survivors by helping them retell their stories in a healing way. Usually, it is done in a group of 4-10 people.

5) Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)

EFT is based on the theory that emotions need to flow freely for our mind-body system to work optimally. If for some reason, we have to repress our emotions and not feel our feelings they get stuck. Tapping and saying certain words/phrases help overwrite faulty thought patterns.

EFT has helped me immensely. The best part is you can do it yourself. There are plenty of helpful videos on youtube.

6) Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (or TRE®)

Tension & Trauma Release Exercises (or TRE®) releases muscular tension, calming down the nervous system. Moreover, when this muscular shaking/vibrating mechanism is activated in a safe and controlled environment, the mind and body are able to return back to a state of balance.

7) Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) helps overcome trauma memories by reprogramming the mind. It has many techniques that can change the thinking and behavior of trauma survivors.

8) Movie Therapy – Mirror Neurons

Movies can help us explore our psyches and heal our past traumas, Watching an emotional film triggers our mirror neurons and recreates within us the emotions felt by the characters we watch. Laughter and crying can dramatically change our perception of an event and bring about memory reconsolidation.

After years of suppressing my pain, I was unable to cry.  However, after watching movies/tv series that emotionally triggered a childhood memory, I could finally cry and after each episode, I felt so much better. Crying serves as a signal to our nervous system that that memory is done and we can move on.

9) Writing/Journaling/Blogging

Writing is an exercise that creates this needed space. It creates an awareness of your thoughts, positive or negative, and separates you from them. Writing this blog has been my source of validation and healing.

10) Sleep

Researchers have found that processes occurring during both rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep also play critical roles in the consolidation of memories.

However, if one has suffered ongoing abuse, one usually suffers from poor sleep quality. As someone who has difficulty falling asleep, I’ve found sound healing and guided sleep meditations extremely helpful in calming my overthinking brain.

GABA & Estrogen Effect Memory

High levels of estrogen have been found to promote a shift in the excitation of the amygdala toward greater inhibition. While low levels of estrogen have been found to result in dysregulation of GABAergic inhibition in the
amygdala. This shows that estrogen and GABA have protective benefits against the effects of trauma.

Fermented foods help increase GABA levels. Include foods rich in probiotics such as fermented pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, etc.

Phytoestrogens are a form of dietary estrogen we get from food. Soy, cruciferous vegetables ( broccoli; Brussels sprouts; cabbage; cauliflower; kale; radish; turnips), flaxseeds, sesame seeds, garlic, -peaches, red wine, and nuts (cashews, almonds, peanuts, and pistachios).  Phytoestrogens in foods may help support estrogen’s natural functions.

Memory Reconsolidation and Transformational Change

The process of reconsolidation process brings a memory out of the consolidated (fixed) state and renders it open to updating and to being reconsolidated – differently.

It is an internal process, that can be triggered by a therapist, reading an inspiring memoir, listening to a survivor’s triumphant story, or when someone tells you the exact words you need to hear. And sometimes just having a fun-filled relaxing evening in the company of people you trust implicitly can alter how we view ourselves and our past.

Our brain is a complex organ, there is so much we don’t know. Nonetheless, from my personal experience, I can vouch for the fact that it is possible to change it. It has taken me nearly 5 years, of a concerted effort to re-program my mind.

A word of advice, don’t rely on just one therapy or expect the therapist to wave a magic wand and make your pain disappear. You will have to employ bottom-up (using the body) and top-down (using the mind) methods to change your mental wiring.

Consistent, regular work will gradually change your nervous system. Regular practice becomes a habit, a habit becomes our personality which in turn changes our destiny.

You don’t have to be a prisoner of your past, you can change your life. Believe and do the work.


Image Source: Pixabay
Ref: Deconstructing the Gestalt: Mechanisms of Fear, Threat, and Trauma Memory Encoding
Deconstructing the Gestalt: Mechanisms of Fear, Threat, and Trauma Memory Encoding

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