There are two kinds of bad memories. Some fade slowly, so that a year or so later the memory of the car crash, or whatever it was, is no longer intrusive, and in time it goes away only to be recalled as an ordinary narrative memory about some unfortunate incident you once experienced.
Traumatic memories do not fade in the same way, and as time goes by they may become worse. These memories are usually connected with a life threatening or other serious event and are more deeply embedded in the brain as a ‘survival template’. If they are not treated they may continue to fire off strong emotional reactions at inappropriate moments and thereby cause trouble for the rest of the sufferer’s life.
What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Trauma, as a medical term, refers to any injury or wound violently inflicted on the body. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating condition that often follows a terrifying physical, life threatening, or perceived as life-threatening, event. It causes the person who survived it to have persistent, frightening thoughts and memories, or flashbacks, of the ordeal. Persons with PTSD often feel chronically, emotionally numb. Once referred to as “shell shock” or “battle fatigue”. About 25 per cent of people involved in major traumatising events go on to develop long-term PTSD symptoms. This percentage rises if life-threatening incidents are almost constantly repeated, as in front line fighting during sustained battles in war.
What kinds of event can cause it?
Violent attacks on the person. Rape. Sustained verbally aggressive attacks. Sudden illness events like a heart attack. Traffic accidents. Industrial injuries. Witnessing sudden violent death, as in train crashes, bombings and war-zone incidents. Panic attacks where the person thinks he is dying. In fact, any event that triggers a strong fear (phobic) response can lead to PTSD. Children have even developed PTSD symptoms from watching horror films on TV.
What is a phobia?
Any uncontrolled, persistent, irrational fear that is accompanied by a compelling desire to avoid the object, activity, or situation that provokes the fear, is called a phobia. As far as the brain is concerned it is no different from PTSD. The same neuronal pathways are involved.
How do you know if you have traumatic memories?
Traumatic memories may cause any or all of the following problems: panic attacks, intrusive memories, nightmares, sudden irrational anger outbursts, depression and other unpleasant emotional states, even intense flashbacks where you actually hallucinate going through the terrible event again as if it were in the present. One sufferer who was traumatised by experiences in the Falklands War (who also experienced flashbacks) described it as “a constant, silent churning” in the back of his mind.
Why are PTSD memories different from the others?
In people suffering PTSD symptoms, the pattern of the memory is stored in a part of the brain called the Amygdala, which is responsible for ensuring our survival by triggering the ‘flight or flight’ response when something dangerous occurs. When something in the environment or in the sufferer’s thinking matches the memory in the Amygdala, it sets off the alarm bells just as if the original incident were happening again. At the same time, other memories may be recalled very powerfully, bringing back the sights, smells, sounds and emotions from the original incident. The Amygdala has no sense of time, and does not know that the incident is in the past.
Is this a major problem?
Trauma is a problem for most GPs, psychologists and psychiatrists, all over the world. The continuing blizzard of news stories about the difficulty of living with PTSD shows how little effect the currently popular treatments have.