Our memories are typically integrated into the overarching story of our lives, providing a frame of reference for the new experience within the context of our whole story. However, an individual going through trauma loses this frame of reference. When the body system becomes inundated with the overwhelming sensory data coming in, the integrated functioning of the system begins to break down. The frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in reason and cognition, shuts down. When cognitive processing shuts down, the individual is no longer able to put feelings into words, making it difficult for them to make sense of the traumatic experience. They lose their sense of location and time. The raw data is no longer processed properly, so their memory of the traumatic event cannot be stored in their long-term memory as other memories are. Instead, the traumatic experience is stored in a different part of the brain as flashes of fragmented sensory and emotional traces.
As a result, traumatic memories are not stored as logical, coherent narratives and are not integrated into the individual’s story. The individual has no ability to say, “that was then, this is now." Because of this process, individuals experience the trauma as a present, here-and-now reality, even if the trauma happened many years ago.
Dr. Donna E. Lane is a Christian Counselor who specializes in trauma, grief, and loss, along with the depression and anxiety often resulting from these experiences. She has been a counselor since 1979, and has owned her practice since 1993. She is co-author of the internationally-acclaimed trauma treatment resource, Trauma Narrative Treatment, and the accompanying story, Gold Stone. She is also the co-author of Strength in Adversity, a Biblical study on walking through difficulty with Christ.