How do childhood memories cause trauma if you can’t remember them?


How do childhood memories cause trauma if you can’t remember them?

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Do you remember the first time you spoke the word “candy”?

I bet you don’t.

But you remember that you liked candy when you were a child, don’t you? Even though you don’t have the first memory, you still have a sensation about the word.

We don’t remember every thing that happens to us when we’re a small child. But some events do cause us to form impressions that are good or bad about certain things.

We might lose the memory over time, but we don’t lose the impression that it caused. So it might result in, say, a fear of dogs if we were bitten by a dog, even if we don’t remember it. Or it might make us nervous to be around someone older that’s friendly, because (sorry, this will be sad) someone older that was friendly abused us when we were a small child.

Not all of impressions might have been accurate. But they were enough to create a reaction that could last many years, from something as trivial as not liking a certain type of food, to something as severe as crippling anxiety about certain situations.

Trauma doesn’t just affect your brain, it affects your body as well. The body always remembers even if the brain doesn’t, because your nervous system is affected. This results in trauma responses: flight, fight, freeze, and fawn. Any person can be stuck in one, or cycle through all of them depending on various situations.

An example of my own: I have dental trauma from when I was a child, maybe 5. Any time I went to the dentist afterwards, I would cry uncontrollably, and I had no idea why. Just a couple years ago, I remembered just enough of the memory to piece together the fact that I was traumatized. I was unable to go to the dentist for 11 years of my life, because my mom passed when I was 11, we lost her disability. That’s another trauma for another time, though. We were poor so it wasn’t prioritized. I was finally able to see a dentist just this year because of my husband’s insurance through his job. I even had a tooth extracted today, and my legs were very shaky, because the body needs to shake to release trauma.

Because trauma affects the type and amount of stress hormones being released into the body. These stress hormones, especially if trauma exposure persists, “rewires” the brain. It causes the amygdala (primal instincts and fear responses) to increase in size and capacity while the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex (logic and reason) shrink. The more trauma exposure, the harder “wired” the brain becomes for trauma/fear response. In short, trauma affects the way the brain develops. I can give you the entire run down of which hormones are released by which parts of the brain and what systems they’re affecting and in what way….but I thought that might be over the top for an ELI5 post. It has nothing to do with memory (or even emotion as an ethereal concept), and everything to do with biology and brain architecture. I hope this very minimal description makes sense.

Even people who can’t form memories still recognize and respond badly to people who have hurt them. What you’re talking about is explicit memory. That’s only one kind. You don’t need conscious, experiential memory in order to have trauma.

The book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van de Kolk is an in depth explanation of this topic