The Trauma Brain (Processing Trauma and Childhood Memories)
For those of us with a trauma brain, we have struggles that other people will never understand. It’s like we are always processing trauma, even when we are not experiencing a traumatic event. A trauma brain rarely gets a break to just relax.
Not only that but having a trauma brain can mean that you struggle to remember things currently in your life because of the way trauma affects the brain. One thing I have also noticed in my own life and for my psychotherapy clients is that those who experienced trauma in childhood often have trouble remembering their childhoods.
The Trauma Brain
Recently, my brother and I were talking on the phone. He asked me about something that we’ve discussed multiple times. He wanted to understand why he doesn’t remember much from our childhood.
I explained the trauma brain to him the way that I explain it to my clients. When we experienced traumatic events as children, there was so much going on for us both physically and mentally that our brains got overwhelmed. First, let’s look at what happened to me physically.
When I was about nine years old, we had to leave our house in the middle of the night due to violence and my father’s drinking. I remember holding my breath as I hid under the bed when everything began. Also, I can remember my entire body shaking and hearing my heart beating so loudly. I’m sure that my little body was incredibly tense and shaking due to intense fear.
There was so much going on in my body as I was trying to keep myself safe physically. Also, my mind was in overload trying to process trauma in the moment. I was processing trauma in the moment. I knew that my safety, both physically and mentally, was at extreme risk.
Now, my trauma brain remembers this event and other traumatic events very well. For many years, I replayed those traumatic events over and over in my mind.
However, I struggled to have many good memories from my childhood. That’s also the case for my brother and many of my psychotherapy clients who experienced trauma in their childhoods.
Why is that? Before I give you my explanation, I want to explain a little about how I work. I am not a researcher by any means. I think research can be fascinating and help us understand things. However, what I am about explain about the trauma brain is purely based on my own personal experiences and my work with my clients, and what I believe takes place for the brain and trauma.
The Brain and Trauma
I’m not a “sciencey” person and I also want to explain my theory on the brain and trauma in a way that most people can understand. As I described from my own childhood, there was a lot going on for me physically and mentally when I was processing trauma in the moment.
So much was required of my brain during those traumatic experiences. That means that those traumatic events had to take up a lot of space in my brain. Unfortunately, we do not have unlimited space in our brains.
If we have multiple traumatic events, there’s not much space left for “good” memories to stick with us. I’ll explain my theory of the trauma brain a little more.
Think about what you did yesterday. If nothing major happened, you will probably not remember the events of yesterday in six months. Yesterday, I went to acupuncture and the gym for some stretching. After that, my baby and I went to eat pizza, came home and he napped while I worked.
My husband came more from work, we cooked dinner, ate, and played with our baby. There was nothing major or out of the ordinary for us yesterday. My brain and body were not stressed. My physical and mental well-being were not threatened.
Due to that and nothing being out of the ordinary about my day, I will not remember that specific day more than likely. My brain and body didn’t have to work hard. So, how does this relate to the trauma brain?
Again, our brains only have so much space. If our brains aren’t stressed or experiencing something different than their norm, it’s likely that we just won’t have the space for it to be “saved” for us to remember.
Therapy Works for Trauma
That is why I remember the traumatic events of my childhood so well. The traumatic experiences were outside of my typical days, were new experiences, and my physical and emotional safety were at risk. My trauma brain was in overdrive as I was processing trauma in the moment each time.
Still to this day, I struggle to have “good” memories of my childhood. For many years, I couldn’t recall any “good” memories at all. This is how I know therapy works.
As I began working on myself in therapy and processing trauma from my childhood, I began remembering some of the good times. Therapy works to help us process our trauma to free up some space in our brains so that we can recall memories that didn’t just consist of trauma.
Just sitting and thinking right now about how I know therapy works because it worked for me, brings a smile to my face. I am remembering two happy memories from my childhood that came back to me after beginning therapy several years ago.
My brother taught me how to ride a bike. We were on a dead-end street, and I was on an old blue bike. My brother told me that he wasn’t going to let go of the back of the bike. I turned around to make sure he was still there, but he had let go of the bike.
Well, I crashed but was proud of myself for riding a bike. After that, I was good to go. I knew how to ride a bike! The other memory that was coming to mind was also with my brother.
We had a big doghouse that I loved to play in. I would take fingernail polish in there to paint the inside of it. I can remember my brother and I being squished in there painting together. Those are memories that I cherish but couldn’t recall until my early thirties due to only remembering the traumatic experiences.
Again, that is how I know therapy works. My trauma brain began to heal in therapy. The traumatic experiences of my childhood began taking up less space in my brain. It’s like those good memories grew some elbows to poke the “bad” memories to say, “Move over! I’m here and need some room too.”
I and my psychotherapy clients are proof that therapy works for those with a trauma brain. You can also learn how to heal trauma to make space for good memories to resurface. I used to believe that I didn’t have hardly anything that was good in my childhood.
Part of me knew that couldn’t be true, but so much of the space in my brain was taken up by trauma. The more work I did processing trauma from my childhood, the more “good” memories began to surface for me.
Childhood Spanking Memories
Childhood spanking memories are also something that I and several of my clients also recall vividly. For those of you who are parents and spank your children, you’re probably not going to like what I’m about to say. As I often say, my views are not for everybody. You get to decide what you believe is right for you.
Some of the other vivid traumatic experiences I can recall are the childhood spanking memories. I was spanked often. Several years ago, my mother even admitted that her spanking “probably bordered on abuse.” There is no probably about it. It was abuse and my trauma brain definitely remembers it as such.
The rage I would see in my mom’s eyes when she was angry at me, and when I knew I was about to get a spanking was so scary for me. She would tell me to go to me room and wait for her to come spank me because she couldn’t look at me because she was so angry.
Back to what I mentioned earlier from the trauma of having to leave our house due to the violence and my father’s drinking. The spanking was not as traumatic as those times, but it was still traumatic. My physical and emotional safety were threatened then too.
My Clever Little Brain
When I was sent to my room to await a spanking, I got clever. I would lock her out of my room. In order to get into my room, she would have to go get a coat hanger to pick the lock.
That would buy me some time. My thoughts on that were that if it took more time for her to get to me, then maybe she would change her mind about spanking me. That never worked. It only made her angrier.
The other thing I would do still makes me giggle. After I locked the door, I would get under my bed and attach myself to the springs. I looked like a little monkey hanging onto the bottom of my bed, but it made it harder for my mom to get to me to spank me. I can remember her yelling at me to get down as she was trying to spank me while I was still attached to my bed.
Just like with locking the door, that also only made her angrier and the spanking even worse. I guess I never learned that lesson because I continued to do it. At some point, it became funny to me. I knew I was going to be spanked no matter what I did.
Why Remember Being Spanked
Childhood spanking memories are often very traumatic for many people. That’s why we remember them so well. Also, that is why I never have and never will spank my son. There are plenty of ways to correct a child’s behavior that won’t result in a traumatic experience for them like spanking will.
If you don’t believe that spanking is traumatic, ask some of your friends or family who were spanked. I guarantee they will remember it in explicit detail. Then ask them to tell you about a memory from the day after they got spanked. They will probably look at you like you’re crazy because they won’t be able to remember the next day if nothing major happened.
Hopefully, you now understand the reason for that. The trauma brain is not going to recall the day after a spanking if nothing major happened because there wasn’t enough space in your brain to remember something that didn’t require a lot of physical or mental energy.
I’ve talked lot about the brain and trauma. Please keep in mind that the way I am explaining the brain and trauma is just a theory based on working with my psychotherapy clients and from my own personal experience. There is probably some research out there to support it. You’re certainly welcome to explore that if you want. My theory is just what makes sense to me about what happens with the brain and trauma.
Remembering Good Childhood Memories
Now, if you are thinking that you do have some good memories from childhood in addition to the memories of trauma, my theory still applies. If our brains and bodies used a lot of energy for an experience, you will probably remember that.
An example of that for me takes me back to Mother’s Day when I was in elementary school. I am the youngest of my siblings but was always the one who made sure my mom got a gift from us.
I remember having my dad take me to a store so I could pick out a rocking chair for my mom to have on the patio. Once I knew the one that I wanted her to have, I went home to tell my siblings how much money they needed to give me so we could buy it for her.
The reason I remember this so well is that it was the first time I had ever spent my own money on something for my mom. When I got home from the store, I went running all around the house frantically searching for my siblings to tell them my plan. I was so excited and spent days thinking about how much my mom was going to love her new rocking chair.
That experience was new and outside of my norm. That is why I remember it so well. So, just because I’ve explained so much about the brain and trauma, it does not mean that my theory does not also apply to good memories. It does.
Understanding Trauma and Your Memories
If your trauma brain has prevented you from having good childhood memories, please know that therapy works as I’ve mentioned. If you need some guidance on how to find a good therapist, I encourage you to read my post 5 Steps for Finding a Good Therapist.
My hopes in writing this post is for you to gain an understanding about the brain and trauma and why you may not remember much from your childhood if it was traumatic. As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, please comment below and I will respond to you. Peace and love to on your continued healing journey.
If you want to learn more about the brain, the body, and trauma, I recommend this amazing book. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessell van der Kolk, MD.
This site is only intended for people who are truly willing to look at themselves with an open mind and have the ability to truly be vulnerable with themselves and others. Please understand that this site is in NO WAY THERAPEUTIC ADVICE. However, this site can be very beneficial in learning the causes of your Not Good Enough Stuff. This site is not intended to provide or replace medical or psychiatric treatment. Mary Beth HIGHLY RECOMMENDS finding a licensed therapist to help you process the information from this site and all that you learn about yourself. Visit Psychology Today to find a licensed therapist in your area.