What are Traumatic Memories?

Our most powerful memories have associated feelings. Sometimes these are positive, and sometimes negative. Traumatic memories are often very painful, intense, overwhelming, and usually negative.

What else do we know about traumatic memories, and how are they different from more ordinary ones? In summary:

1. These memories are carved deeply into the person’s brain. Thus, they leave frozen imprints which do not get updated. This is very different from our non-traumatic memories which are fluid and dynamic, and tend to change with time

3. Traumatic memories are resistant to new evidence. This is true even when the individual can agree with the new information being presented to them.

Although it logically makes sense, it still cannot overpower and change the old, entrenched reactions and beliefs. The reason is these deeply ingrained memories are believed, and the brain is trying to protect us from real harm.

4. That is, the body and the brain are being triggered and react in old instinctive ways (which may be inappropriate).

5. Thus, the person’s past lives on; it is never truly dead. It’s as if there is no present, and there is no future, too. (How can there be a future if we’re still stuck in the past?)

6. Being triggered usually happens very unexpectedly. These flashbacks are unbidden, and they haunt and terrorize. They come out of left field, and they replay endlessly.

7. Once this activation has occurred in the brain, the person will respond with a fight or flight response. This will tend to escalate until they’re now in “over-drive”.  

If flight or flight are unsuccessful (which is usually the case), the person will then freeze; they’ll feel completely paralyzed.

These are emergency responses by the body and the brain.

8. After this, they will collapse; the threat is inescapable. There’s nothing they can do, so they might as well give up.

9. This pattern of events is repeated constantly, and these types of trauma memories don’t resolve themselves alone. They’re frozen and they’re static. They’re hardwired in the brain.

Unfortunately: “Long after a traumatic experience is over, it may be reactivated at the slightest hint of danger and mobilize disturbed brain circuits and secrete massive amounts of stress hormones. This precipitates unpleasant emotions intense physical sensations, and impulsive and aggressive actions. These posttraumatic reactions feel incomprehensible and overwhelming. Feeling out of control, survivors of trauma often begin to fear that they are damaged to the core.” – Bessel A. van der Kolk   

10. However, there are proven therapies that trauma therapists can use. So please reach out for help. Please don’t suffer on your own.     

Quote of the Day

PTSD: It’s not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.”

Said the husband who had cheated on his wife for 15 years …

– “Is it really going to be like this until the day I die?”

– “Are we never going to have the normal life we used to have?”

– “I feel I can’t behave the same as everybody else … and I really want to act the same as everybody else.”

– “I really thought by now you would have healed, and then moved on.”

– “I never, ever thought that it was going to take this long.”

– “I’m angry that I can’t say ‘yes’ to things I’d like to do (because I’m never sure if it is going to trigger you.)”

“This feels like a life sentence, one I never can escape … I’m pulled back to the past when you are triggered, and react.’

But the problem is his partner now has PTSD – because her world’s been torn apart by all the things HE did.

When she learned of the betrayals, and the secrets and the lies. When she learned that he’d infected her with STDs as well.

Yes, she’d like to move on too; she’d never choose this for herself. But the problem is his actions have destroyed her normal life.

She’d love to snap her fingers and return to how things were …

But that is just a fantasy when you’ve been traumatized.  

How to Cope with Anxiety after Betrayal

The scars you can’t see are the hardest to heal.”

Human beings are wired to connect, and to feel secure in a close relationship. It’s an innate need. It is natural and healthy.

And when that bond is broken, and our trust has been betrayed, our basic sense of safety is greatly undermined. It is difficult to trust and be vulnerable again.

So what do you do with the anxiety and fear that hits you out of nowhere, and destabilizes you?

1. First, it’s important to understand that this reaction (feeling intensely anxious) is instinctive and automatic. It’s experienced by almost everyone who has been betrayed. It isn’t something to feel guilty or bad about. It’s your brain and body’s way of taking care of you. Just acknowledging this fact, can often help to calm us down.

2. Rather than resisting the anxiety and fear, it is better to embrace it, and accept the way you feel. For it never really helps to deny reality.

3. Sometimes being angry that you have to deal with this can help you to work through the strong feelings that you have. Be furious with your partner for messing up your life. You never asked for this. You didn’t bring it on yourself. And yet you have to deal with all the worry and the fear!

4. Consciously question the anxiety and fear. Ask yourself:

Why do I think I can trust my partner now?

What evidence is there that this is a reasonable conclusion to draw?

What is he or she doing differently today that leads to that conclusion?  

Being as objective as you can be, ask yourself: On a scale of 1-10, where one in not trustworthy and ten is not trustworthy, how trustworthy would you rate your partner as being today (not yesterday or tomorrow)?  

5. Try to deal with the anxiety together as a couple. It can help rebuild the bond, if you both can understand that anxiety is normal, and is part of life – for now.

What really helps is if you can reach the place where you can both say (without judgment): “Yes, we could have predicted this would happen today/ tonight/ in this situation. We know it’s going to happen again and again. And we know it’s really difficult for both of us.”

6. It can also help if the betrayed partner can see that your anxiety reveals how much they really mean to you.  You want to trust again. That’s why you’re seeking reassurance.

7. If you’re the betrayed partner, do your best to figure out what will help you worry less, and will give the reassurance that will help you to feel better. If you can say what you need, then your partner or spouse can do their best to meet this need for you.

How to Cope with Flashbacks

Healing is not an overnight process. It takes time. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re finally feeling better, and then the wound will reopen and bleed. Don’t give up. Don’t get discouraged. Keep on taking it one step at a time.”

Flashbacks are a feature of PTSD that are hard to manage, as well as being distressing. Below are some suggestions for helping you to cope:

1. First, tell yourself that you are having a flashback. Give it a name. This can help create a sense of control when we feel we’re at the mercy of overwhelming feelings.

2. Remind yourself that the worst is over. You already know the truth, and you’ve faced up to the truth. So, the feelings and sensations you’re experiencing right now are merely memories related to the past (discovering the terrible truth for the first time). That event is over. It’s not happening right now, and you managed to survive the experience.

3. Ground yourself in the present moment. Feel your feet on the ground, and remind yourself you are able to escape if you need to get away.  

4. Focus on your breathing. When we start to feel scared, we stop breathing normally, and our body starts to register a lack of oxygen. It is this which causes the increasing sense of panic (which manifests in symptoms like a pounding head, tightness in the chest, profuse sweating, or feeling faint.)

Note: To breathe deeply, put your hand on your diaphragm, push against your hand, and then exhale so that the diaphragm goes back in again.

5. Reorient yourself to the present moment by consciously using each of your five senses.

Look around and focus on some different objects in the room. Make a mental note of different colours you can see.

Listen out for different sounds in your environment. Notice your breathing, any traffic, white noise, birds or people.

Try to feel your body, and notice what it’s touching. For example, try touching your clothes, arms, hair or body. Feel the chair or floor supporting you.

Sniff to see if you can smell anything … Flowers, coffee, cigarettes, an air freshener, and so on.

Swallow a few times. Try eating a mint, or a piece of gum. Notice how it tastes, and how that slowly starts to change.

6. Establish boundaries between yourself and the world. Sometimes when we’re experiencing a flashback, we can’t tell where we end and the world begins. If that happens, put a blanket or a cover around you; hold a pillow to your chest; go to bed; lock the door – or do what you need to feel you’re safe from threat or danger.

7. Seek support from someone who will understand your feelings. (Perhaps your family, a close friend, or a counsellor.)

8. Allow yourself the time you need to recover. Flashbacks can be powerful, and extremely distressing. Give yourself whatever time you need to transition from what is happening in your body … back to the present time.

Also, don’t expect to be able to function normally. You can’t just switch off these emotions then return to your day. If it helps, take a nap, have a bath, go for a walk, or listen to some music that you know will soothe your feelings.

And remember to be gentle and kind with yourself. Don’t attack yourself for having a flashback.

9. Respect and honour your experience. Appreciate the fact that you’ve managed to survive.

10. Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal – and it takes time to learn how to cope with powerful flashbacks. It’s a long slow process, and it can’t be speeded up.

Betrayal and PTSD

Your healing is about you. It doesn’t need anyone’s stamp of approval. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, or how ugly it looks. It’s about you, and you alone.”

PTSD is a response to a traumatic incident, and is frequently experienced when a partner or spouse discovers that their mate has a secret life. Hence, it may be something you have suffered from yourself, even it’s not been formally diagnosed.

Signs and Symptoms

These include re-experiencing the crisis or trauma; experiencing avoidance or emotional numbing; experiencing heightened vigilance or alertness; and experiencing other illnesses or concerns. These are summarized below.

1. Re-experiencing the crisis or trauma: This is the defining trait of PTSD. In most situations, the person will experience intense, overwhelming and recurrent flashbacks of the traumatic incident. Thus, they feel as if they’re actually re-living the event, and will have the same reactions as they had at that time. This may also manifest as nightmares and night terrors.

Note: For many people, the anniversary of the trauma, or being in a situation that reminds of what happened, can unleash intense emotions and feelings of distress.

2. Avoidance and emotional numbing: People who suffer from PTSD will generally do whatever they can to avoid situations which remind them of the trauma. Also, for most individuals emotional numbing is experienced immediately after the traumatic event. As a consequence of this, the person may withdraw from old interests, their work, their family and friends. They will also find it difficult to feel any emotions, and especially those related to closeness and trust. However, intense guilt and shame are, unfortunately, common and the person may struggle with despair and hopelessness.

3. Heightened vigilance and alertness: This prevents the individual from enjoying daily life, relaxing, concentrating and completing normal tasks. There is usually a marked change in their sleep patterns, too – in the form of insomnia, disturbed or broken sleep, wakening early in the morning, or being troubled by night terrors.

4. Other illnesses or concerns: In addition to the symptoms described above, people with PTSD may suffer from depression, generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, dizziness, shaking, chest pains, stomach pains, cognitive concerns and memory lapses.

If the above describes your experience, can I suggest you reach out for help, and considering talking to a counsellor, psychologist, or psychotherapist.

Some Things I’ve Learned from Trauma

1. It requires specialist counselling. Although it is essential to talk about what happened, and to have your experienced witnessed by another, a counsellor or therapist needs additional training. They need to know what is normal when you’ve been traumatized, and especially when it comes to managing flashbacks, re-experiencing the trauma, and dissociation.

2. You feel you’re going crazy; you don’t recognize yourself. You fly off the handle at the smallest provocation. You react in scary and unexpected ways; and you no longer live on an even keel.

This is not who you were, or who you want to be.  You feel you’ve lost yourself, and you’ve lost yourself forever.

3. You experience emotions you never felt before; and these feelings can be hard to bring under control. They’re overwhelming, intense and can be hard to dial down. And you never really know “what is going to set you off.”  

4. You feel ashamed and embarrassed at the way that you react, and this further undermines your very low self-esteem … for the trauma has already undermined your self-esteem.

5. So much of what you’re feeling cannot be articulated. Rational thinking is shut down when emotions start to rise. The subconscious mind is driving things, and trying to protect you. You can’t explain to others what is happening to you.

6. There are very few people who will truly understand. They will judge the situation and give you trite advice. Unless you’ve walked this road yourself, then you don’t know what it is like. You don’t understand the terror, the despair and hopelessness.

7. Be careful who you talk to. This is crucial for self-care. If you talk to the wrong person, you’ll only feel much worse. Be hesitant and wise before you risk sharing with others.

8. Other people who have gone through something similar to you are you best supporters (beyond talking to a counsellor). They’ve struggled with these symptoms – all the same thoughts and emotions. They know what it is like, and they can normalize reactions.

9. Feeling safe in our own body, in our environment, and with a few trusted people is a prerequisite for processing the trauma, and being able to recover.

10. Recovery is slow. It’s so much slower than expected. It plays havoc with your sleep, and it can compromise your health. Daily life feels like a minefield; there are triggers everywhere. You think you’re making progress then the past hits you again.

But there is absolutely hope. It won’t be this way forever. One day you will look back, and you will see how much you’ve changed.

Why We Can’t “Just Let go”

How often do you hear someone say, “Just let it go”?

As if was easy that easy to “Just let it go”.

You don’t just snap your fingers, or make up your mind. The feelings that you have won’t just quietly lie down. The don’t just frizzle out and, no, they don’t just disappear.

And that’s why this trite phrase tends to annoy me so much.

If you try to block emotions and pretend they aren’t there, you will not solve the problem for the issue’s unaddressed. The feelings are still there – even if they’re underground.

For your feelings are designed to alert you to the fact that something isn’t right: that you’ve been wronged, or you’ve been hurt.

That matters – and it should.

And it is right to feel upset.

What to do About it?

If you can’t “Just let it go” what can you, maybe, do instead?

You can do the opposite. Yes, you allow yourself to feel. You process the emotions by sitting with the pain. You give them dignity, and you invite them to speak up.


The feelings must move through you if they’re going to be released. So acknowledge how you’re feeling. Don’t deny the way things are.

The Process

You notice what you’re feeling, and describe the way you feel. For example, your fingers might be tingling, or your stomach might feel rough.

It’s going to take time. For sure, this won’t be a quick fix. But it’s all part of the process of releasing intense pain.

Why is this Effective?

The reason is you’ve honoured all the trauma you’ve lived through. And now it’s integrated. It is part of who you are.

No, we can’t “Just let it go”. There are clear steps we need to take. But by doing this hard work, you’ll find you’re able to get free.

What Not to Say When Someone’s Going Through a Trauma

When someone is dealing with a heartache or trauma, there is nothing you can do to make the pain go away. Yes, you can be there for them, and can offer them your presence. And silent empathy can help them feel much less alone.

But there are things that people say that do not help the situation. That’s rarely their intention – for they usually want to help. But when we are in crisis, we are vulnerable and bleeding. Thus, you need to tread more carefully, and think about your words.

Things to avoid when someone’s dealing with a trauma include:  

1. “I know how bad it is; the same thing happened to me.” Everyone’s experience is different and unique so you don’t really know what they are going through, at all. Also, the spotlight is on them, and their experience, right now. It isn’t about you, or all the heartache you’ve been through.

2. “I know it’s bad but, honestly, it could have been even worse.” For a traumatized person this is shocking beyond words. They’re reeling from what happened, and their world’s been torn apart. Don’t minimize the damage, or the sorrow and the pain.

3. “It’ll all work out in the end.” This isn’t reassuring (even though it’s meant to help). The truth is: life’s uncertain. You don’t have a crystal ball. And things might not get better. You don’t know what lies ahead.

4. “I’m sure they didn’t mean to cause you so much grief and pain.” The aggressor’s motivations are irrelevant to them. Their life’s been blown apart by choices someone else has made. They’re paying a high price for something someone else has done. This person is a victim, and their suffering’s undeserved.

5. “I’m sure it would help if you could try and talk about it.” It only helps to talk if the traumatized person feels that they want to talk about it … and they genuinely feel that the listener is someone who is safe and understanding.  

6. “Here’s what you need to do …” This is highly disrespectful and it smacks of a quick fix. A band aid will not help them when we are deeply traumatized. There are layers and layers of damage, and it’s going to take some time to understand the impact this has had upon their life.           

A Night on Trauma

Let’s paint a picture.

It’s getting close to bedtime.

As you start to think about heading upstairs you begin to notice you feel vaguely agitated. There’s a very subtle feeling of anxiety.  

You try to calm your feelings by reminding yourself that life is really good, and everything’s OK today. There’s no need to worry. And there’s no cause for concern.

And you actually believe it. You almost feel secure.

You dim the bedroom lights, and you escape into your book. You soon give up on reading, and are dropping off to sleep when – all of a sudden – you jolt awake again.

You feel as if you are having a heart attack. Your heart is thudding loudly in a stark, dramatic way. Adrenalin is rushing down one side of your body.

Now you’re really hot, and you are sweating profusely. You throw off the covers, and you gasp for air.

Focus on your breathing.” You tell yourself. “Breath in slowly … and then slowly out again. Breath in slowly … and then slowly out again.”

As you begin to fall asleep again, your body jerks awake. Your heart is racing wildly, and your feet are tingling.

You try to relax. You try to focus on your breathing. But this time, it’s much harder. You’re alert; much more awake.

But eventually you manage, and you drop back off to sleep.

About twenty minutes later, you are wakened once again. Your heart is pounding loudly. The adrenalin in rushing.

You might as well get up. You’re going to be awake for hours.

This is what it’s like to live with PTSD. This is what it’s like when you’ve experienced a trauma.

Perhaps the days get better, and you’re on an even keel.

But then there are the nights – when you relive it all again.

“Real healing is hard, exhausting and draining. Let yourself go through it. Don’t try to paint it as anything other than it is. Be there for yourself – with no judgment.” – Unknown  

Turn Back the Clock

I would like to turn back the clock and start my life over.

This time I would have higher self-esteem. I would believe that I am great just as I am. That I’m as good as the next person, and not inadequate or flawed in some awful, irreparable way.

I would believe that I deserve to be loved. For me. Just as I am. Because I am actually a lovely person. A fun person. Someone it is good to hang out with. Someone it is great to be friends with. Someone you would want to have as your girlfriend or wife.

I would believe that I ought to be treated well. That this is absolutely what I deserve. That I have a right to stand up for myself and to say: “You, my dear, are worth too much to be lied to, and deceived, and treated as if you don’t matter. As if your feelings, and self-worth don’t matter.”

Because all of this is true.

I would not have to experience broken sleep. And anxiety attacks, and nights of utter sorrow and hopelessness.

I would not have to experience PTSD, and days of numbness and total devastation.

If I could time travel, I would go back to where it all started, and I would rewrite my story.

I would go back to the days when those first seeds were sown. Where the lies took root. When the doubts crept in. When I started to believe that I wasn’t worth much.

I would hug that child and reassure her that she was loved. That she was beautiful. Special. Deserved the very best in life.

She would hold her head high – not because she was proud – but because she was knew she was loved, and she loved herself.  

But I can’t time travel, and I can’t turn back the clock.

But I can start again – in this new day – TODAY.

No, it’s not too late to start to love myself.

This second time round can begin right now.