Many years ago, I discovered this award winning video about neurons and neural circuits. It has wonderful music and beautiful animation about the magical human nervous system. Imagine, every thought, feeling, behavior humans have is controlled by the communication between neurons and other neurons in neural circuits. I was mesmerized by this video and share it now to inspire you to dig deeper in the online workbook to learn about how and why you think, feel and behave in the world.
My goal is to create a useful workbook to help trauma survivors, understand the powerful way adverse experiences impact our memory, thoughts, feelings and behavior and ways to process these memories so they are not so damaging.
I am never shocked by the many decades it takes for my brave clients to remember their own trauma experiences and seek help. My own personal experience, training and experience enables me to help.
What is memory? “Memory is the process of taking in information from the world around us, processing it, storing it and later recalling that information, sometimes many years later. Human memory is often likened to that of a computer memory system or a filing cabinet.” https://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/memo/memory.html
I often describe trauma memory as being placed in a box with a lid that can not be closed securely taken to a back room in the basement, placed in the corner, then left in the darkness. While it may be difficult to remember all the details of the trauma, we avoid going to the box and opening the lid, even though the trauma experience influences the way we think, feel and behave in the world.
Just remember the first time you burned your finger in a candle. Once done, we remember the pain and avoid repeating that behavior. Children who experience abuse or neglect often grow up being unable to trust, trusting too much and/or develop serious substance abuse, psychological and/or physical illness as adults. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153850/
So, memory is the storehouse of life experiences which activate our nervous system toward joy, anger/fear, or depression and immobilization.
While traumatic memory is life-threatening, working through those memories can be strengthening.
Let’s talk about memory and trauma.
Here are the key research based facts about trauma and memory:
- Human memory is not like a video tape with every detail recorded.
- Trauma memory is often remembered as sensations, imagery fragments or nearly complete memories because they are associated with a threat to our survival.
- Trauma memories can be always remembered, partially forgotten, then remembered later or delayed recall of memory or totally forgotten (amnesia).
- Trauma memories that have been forgotten were previously described as “repressed memories.”
- As memory scientists began to understand the impact of trauma on memory, they clarified that “repression” referred to the psychological mechanism that pushed trauma memories from one’s conscious awareness.
- So, trauma memories are not really ever forgotten, but rather “actively forgotten” and stored in a way that makes them difficult to retrieve.
- While the Catholic church tried to deny the validity of recovered memories in the 1980’s, scientists created volumes of research that proved trauma could be forgotten, then remembered many years later.
- A study of 500 psychologists demonstrated that 24% reported experiencing child abuse and 40% of them (48) reported some period of forgetting or delayed recall of memory. Shirley Feldman-Summers & Kenneth S. Pope: https://kspope.com/therapistas/amnesia1.php
- Jim Hopper, PhD a widely respected trauma expert and Harvard faculty person states: Amnesia for childhood sexual abuse is a condition. The existence of this condition is beyond dispute. Repression is merely one explanation– often a confusing and misleading one –for what causes the condition of amnesia. Some people sexually abused in childhood will have periods of amnesia for their abuse, followed by experiences of delayed recall.
- Central details of a trauma refer to where the attention of the victim is riveted and is related to the threat to their survival, for example feeling the sting of a slap on the face, being sexually abused, the smell of alcohol on a threatening parent, or simply a clock on the wall or the color of the room.
- Peripheral details refer to aspects of the event that are not related to a threat to survival, such as remembering how one got home after being abused at a party, the what/when/sequences related to the trauma.
- Law enforcement often discounted sexual assault claims because they focused on peripheral details. Remarkably, survivors were often asked to tell their story beginning at the end moving forward.
- Research also shows that the percentage of false or fabricated claims of rape or abuse are extremely low. A Canadian study looked at 7, 672 cases of reported child abuse and found 35% (2,685) were unsubstantiated. Of these unsubstantiated cases, only 4% (107) were found to be based on false claims. However, these false claims were not made by the children themselves. (citation needed)
The Polyvagal Theory (PVG) offers a useful model for thinking about the body processes that control how we think, feel, and behave in the world. It states there are three basic pathways of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the Ventral, Sympathetic and Dorsal vagal system how we can begin to take control of these processes to create joy in our lives. Autonomic is similar to the word automatic and accurately describes how the ANS functions unconsciously to scan our environment for threat.
Like many theories that attempt to explain human behavior, the Polyvagal Theory has critics that argue the underlying science is flawed. You can read about this critique here. However, I and many other therapists like the Polyvagal concepts and think them useful for anyone trying to understand how they can become so emotionally hijacked and ways they can learn to relax for longer periods of time and find joy in their lives.
The human nervous system develops as a result of its complex interaction with a person’s environment. So, a child who grows up in home with constant stress and trauma develops a nervous system wired to protect against threat. Using PVG theory, we can assume the child is stuck in the Dorsal vagal state with a constant sense of dread, anxiety and fear that follows them into adulthood. This results in symptoms, such as hypervigilance, difficulty calming down after being triggered, and an unrealistic sense of guilt and responsibility for the abuse or neglect.
For an excellent description of trauma symptoms, click here.
One of the most important facts about traumatic emotional memories is they’re stored non-consciously in what’s called implicit memory. Understanding explicit and implicit memory is critical to understanding how to diminish the emotional damage of trauma and heal.
For a quick explanation of the two types of memory, Explicit and Implicit memory and their two subtypes, click here.
The following is an image describing Explicit/Implicit memory and their two sub-types.
For a more detailed explanation of the way Implicit emotional memories can disrupt our lives unconsciously, click here.
For a quick explanation of the ANS, click here.
To begin working on the Polyvagal Card Deck, I would like you to complete the following exercises.
1. Review the three pink introductory cards: “Overview, Important Concepts, and the Three States.”
2. Click this link to read more about the Polyvagal Theory.
3. Use the image below as a model and describe your own thoughts, feelings and experiences in the three pathways of the Autonomic Nervous System, the Ventral, Sympathetic and Dorsal.
Exercise 2. Glimmer
The next exercise I would like you to complete involves the use of the “glimmer” technique to help promote the joy, calm, peacefulness associated with the Ventral state (the green zone).
You will find the “glimmer” card in the beginning of the deck and is colored green.
Here is a link to a USA article describing “glimmers” as the opposite of triggers: https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2022/03/23/glimmers-opposite-triggers-mental-health-benefits/7121353001/
Exercise 3: SIFTing
Next, I would like you to focus on the “SIFTing” technique. This involves you sifting through your memories to find a positive memory and re-experience the qualities of this experience.
Here is an excellent video describing the 3 Polyvagal states and the “SIFTing” technique:
Exercise 4. Bessel van der Kolk
I will be posting some of what I consider the most valuable videos to help explain the importance and value of using the many creative behavioral techniques, such as those in the Polyvagal Card Deck.
This video, by Bessel van der Kolk. MD, explains his experience as a young psychiatrist in a Veterans Hospital treating Vietnam War trauma survivors. There are many profound aspects of this video, but the focus here is the importance of behavioral therapy.
Exercise 5. Video example of Jack stuck in the Dorsal vagal state
I found this video when I was researching the impact of trauma on memory a few years ago. The video is of Jack, a fireman who was buried in the rubble of the devastated World Trade Center in New York. He was meeting for a therapeutic session with Jon Connelly, PhD who developed a therapy method that quickly helped trauma survivors access, express and heal long buried emotional memories of trauma. I studied with Jon and understand his therapy method. While I don’t endorse his method entirely, I do value it as a way to begin the healing process.
In this video, Jack is stuck in a dorsal vagal state of immobilization. John expertly helps Jack move quickly from a state of immobilization to a healthier state characteristic of the Ventral vagal state. Jack begins to access the horrific emotional memories of his suffering and the loss of his friends that day.
Watch the video here or here below:
At about the 2-minute mark, Jack begins to experience the implicit emotional memories of his horrific experience from 9-11. He puts his face in his hand and begins to cry, but stops quickly. Jon skillfully later to facilitate a process a healing experience.
Exercise 6: Neurons
Neurons or nerve cells, are the basic unit of the brain. It’s estimated the human brain has about 100 billion neurons with over 100 trillion connections. When you move your finger, zillions of neurons activate from brain to finger resulting in a move, all mostly without you thinking about it. Angry with someone? Your emotional brain is activated and you might say or do something you regret later. All because humans actually feel, before thinking. Read more here.
Image by BruceBlaus – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28761830
Exercise 7: Neuroplasticity: Neurons and Neural Circuits Are Strengthened When Activated
Our brain is constantly changing based on our life experiences. In a sense, our brains are like muscles. The part of our brains that become stronger are the parts that are activated. This is why frequent anger is unhealthy. The more anger we feel and express, the more those neural pathways are strengthened and become our “go to” emotion. We don’t want that, especially since our anger is most often directed at the people we love or should love.
Watch this video on neuroplasticity, here or below.
Exercise 8: Neuroplasticity: Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together
We are exploring how neurons are activated and strengthened. In 1949, Donald Hebb presented his theory that explained how habits were formed through the repeated activation of neurons and neural circuits. This offers an even more powerful explanation as to why human beings repeat serious mistakes over and over.
Watch this video here or below.
Exercise 9: Neural Pathways from our Brain Control Everything
Watch this video here or below.
Exercise 10: “Consider Change”
In the back of the PVG Card Deck, you will find blue cards exploring ways to create change. Take a look at the “consider change” card and explore the process of looking inward at your life and notice the ways being stuck in the angry, fearful Sympathetic or the immobilization of the Dorsal Vagal states are exhausting you, keeping you from moving your life forward towards accomplishment and joy.
Exercise 10: “Exploring My Sympathetic Survival Landscape”
You will find this card in the “yellow” section of the card deck. This exercise will help you become more familiar with your sympathetic nervous system, most commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” system.
Exercise 11: Brief History of the Brain
This is brief and fascinating! Read it here.
Exercise 12: The 1848 Story of Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage survived a horrific brain injury where an iron rod pierced his brain. Subsequent research on the impact of this injury led to the understanding the brain has different regions and influences one’s personality. Read his story here.