Healing Trauma: How Your Brain Hides Painful Memories

Childhood trauma always leaves its scars. Children can experience or be exposed to violence, mental abuse, neglect, vehicle accidents, natural disasters, rape, or other circumstances of extreme fear and shock.

As a result, they change for the worse. Their play becomes repetitive and often involves their trauma. They can’t sleep by themselves or be alone at any time. They distance themselves from people, have a low self-esteem, and have difficulty with trust. Aggression is a common symptom, as well as self-harm and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (1)

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the trauma is blocked by the child’s brain and cannot be remembered. An adult may become disgusted or terrified when smelling a particular type of liquor, or inexplicably angry or afraid when touched by an older person. The brain could have blurred a memory about being raped by an older individual who was drunk.

The adult wonders, “Am I crazy?” (2)

Traumas Hidden by the Brain

Many people suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety as a result of their childhood experiences. However, it’s difficult for them to receive the phycological counseling they need if they cannot recall the incident that is causing all this hardship. This seems like a lose-lose situation for trauma victims.

Until now.

The Study of Memories and Mice

Northwestern University conducted research that may break this vicious cycle by discovering exactly how the mind hides painful memories. The scientists administered a drug to their lab mice that stimulated the extra-synaptic GABA receptors in their brains. These receptors alter the state of the brain, which causes a person to feel alert or calm, tired or awake.

Next, the mice were put into a box where they were briefly given a mild electric zap. This action represents a trauma in a PTSD victim. The next day, when they were returned to the box, the mice were composed and scurried around freely. This is the stage where the victim cannot remember the incident and continues as normal.

However, when the mice were supplied with the same drug that tweaked their extra-synaptic GABA receptors and placed back into the box, the rodents froze with fear.

The researchers deduced that the mice were able to access the memory of the shock when they were in an identical psychological state as the trauma.

The Brain Stations

“The brain functions in different states, much like a radio operates at AM and FM frequency bands,” said principal researcher Dr. Jelena Radulovic, a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s as if the brain is normally tuned to FM stations to access memories, but needs to be tuned to AM stations to access subconscious memories.”

These findings show that brains of certain individuals under traumatic stress don’t form memories the regular route, but instead turns on the extra-synaptic GABA system to create inaccessible memories. This is the mind’s way to protect the person from the horror and stress he had just experienced.

Dr. Radulovic said that this study “could eventually lead to new treatments for patients with psychiatric disorders for whom conscious access to their traumatic memories is needed if they are to recover.” (3)

A New Awakening

Naturally, it will be challenging and painful for victims to discover the unspeakable horrors in their past, especially ones that they never thought existed. Yet this is the process of healing. One cannot look to the future while they are haunted by the past.

This research could be a beacon of hope to those who cannot remember what is holding them back in life.


(1) US Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD in Children and Teens. http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/ptsd-children-adolescents.asp Updated: August 13, 2015. Accessed: September 14, 2016

(2) Jim Hopper. Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse. http://www.jimhopper.com/child-abuse/recovered-memories/#fragmentary-memories-may-be-it Accessed: September 14, 2016

(3) Kathryn Drury Wagner. How Your Brain Hides Painful Memories. http://spiritualityhealth.com/articles/how-your-brain-hides-painful-memories Accessed: September 14, 2016

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