Tag Archives: trauma

Memories of Memorial Day: How to Use Memory Re-consolidation to Cope with Pain from the Past

Green Shadow II

Back in the 1970s, I remember singing the lyrics to, The Way We Were, along with Barbra Streisand. Using my best falsetto, Barbra and I crooned, “Memories, light the corners of my mind.”

These lyrics aren’t technically correct. But then Barbra and the song’s lyricists, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, didn’t have access to modern brain scans. Based on neuroscience research, it would have been more accurate for Barbra and I to sing, “Memories, light the center of my mind.”

Memories live deep within the brain. If you could magically poke your index finger down through the top center of your skull, you still couldn’t quite reach your brain’s memory structures, the hippocampus and amygdala.

Memories are a fascinating electrical, molecular, cellular, and inter-structural phenomenon. I won’t be providing scientific details about memory, because then I’d have to write something about how the interaction of glucocorticoids and noradrenaline in the basolateral region of the amygdala can modulate the strength of memories in the hippocampus and other brain areas . . . and by then our fascination with memory would doubtless give way to boredom and sleepiness.

Speaking of sleepiness, it’s metaphorically accurate to say that most of our memories typically just lay around dozing in their hippocampal bed until awakened. Not surprisingly, some memories are lighter sleepers than others; they can be easily awakened. Sometimes, when sleeping memories are rudely awakened (triggered) they tend to be rather grumpy and unpleasant.

Here are three examples:

Say you’re creeping around on Facebook. You see an old high school photo from 25 years ago. The visual stimulus of the photo is a memory trigger; several related images and narratives pop into your mind. These images and narratives aren’t grumpy or unpleasant. Instead, you feel warmly nostalgic. This is an example of a visual trigger that activates a mildly pleasant set of associated memories.

In contrast, if you’re a veteran who has experienced war trauma and you hear firecrackers on the 4th of July, your consciousness may flood with vivid, multisensory memories. These memories could link to deep emotional pain. This is an example of an auditory trigger that awakens or activates disturbing memories—memories that you might prefer to put back to sleep.

Now, think of the smell of coffee in the morning. For me, the scent of coffee is neutral. No clear memories are activated. But, when coffee smells are combined with the aroma of bacon on the griddle, I have instant flashbacks to my Grandma Lucy making breakfast. This is an olfactory stimulus triggering a pleasant memory. I see my grandma’s grey hair, pulled back with bobby pins. I can see my own small hands touching and feeling the textured floral pattern on her white milk glass china as I wait for breakfast, watching her. I hear the pop of bacon sizzling. I can imagine the pain I might feel if I get too close to grandma’s griddle. I instantly know the past and future of this memory. First, Grandma Lucy peeled the bacon apart, dangling each piece before laying them on the griddle. Later, she’ll save the bacon grease, for another purpose. She was like that. Another emotion emerges. I feel sad. I miss her.

In honor of memory science, it’s important to note that each of the preceding memories may be more or less historically accurate. Even more important is the likelihood that these memories, like all memories, have changed, shifted, and evolved over time.

How can memories change? Isn’t it true that humans have an experience and then store a record of it in their brain, ready for later retrieval? Not exactly.

As it turns out, new memories are more fluid than solid. Following a memorable experience, memories stay unstable for somewhere between a few minutes and a few hours. New memories are in flux and shaped or degraded by additional new experiences that immediately follow. More remarkable is the fact that, even after storage, every time memories are pulled out (or retrieved) they return to an unstable or vulnerable state, until they re-stabilize or reconsolidate. And when they reconsolidate (a process that involves cellular protein synthesis), they can include new, different, or less information. This is how and why memories change over time.

For many Americans, Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. For example, yesterday there were flowers, speeches, and flag waving. Yesterday, you were probably in the company of family, possibly kneeling at a gravesite, perhaps celebrating the life of someone whom you loved and lost.

Memorial Day is a memory trigger. It’s a time set aside to honor the lives of men and women who died in service of our country. It’s natural and good to engage in this honoring ritual. People also honor non-military family members with flowers and graveside visits. But, amidst the celebrations, as is often the case, the emotional side of life gets short shrift. Typically, we celebrate and move on, despite the fact that it’s equally natural and good to honor the grief that we feel in response to Memorial Day celebratory rituals.

It might have been the 21 gun salute or the color of the flowers or the taste of the potato salad or the smell of your uncle’s cologne. Whatever the case, yesterday you probably had old memories awaken and stroll past you in an internal memory parade. Some of these memories may have been neutral. Others may have been pleasant. Still others, felt angry, sad, guilty, or lonely.

But memories are open to change, and that fact begs for intentionality. What I mean is that we should all have a plan for Memorial Day (and then a plan for Memorial Night). Not only do we need plans for how to celebrate, we need plans for dealing with the raw emotions that Memorial Day can trigger.

I wish I could offer up a simple method for helping you to deal effectively with Memorial Day memory activation and reconsolidation. But you (and everyone) are a unique entity with layers of fantastic idiosyncrasy. Nevertheless, here’s a quick glimpse into the emerging science of memory reconsolidation.

In one research study, participants were exposed to negative emotional memories from watching a trauma film. The next day, these memories were re-activated using a trauma-photo from the film. Then, after a 10 minute-break some participants played a game of Tetris, while others didn’t. The results: Over the next seven days, the participants who played Tetris after having traumatic memories re-activated, experienced significantly fewer intrusive trauma-related memories. The implications? Maybe the Memorial Night solution is to establish a Tetris-playing ritual.

But painful memories are complex and unique. What works for one person, might not work for another. As Drexler and Wolf (authors of a 2018 scholarly review) were inspired to write, “Indeed, when the activation of selective L-type voltage-gated calcium channels or GluN2B-containing NMDA receptors in the hippocampus was prevented before retrieval, thus blocking memory destabilization . . . the interfering air puff had no effect” (p. 15). Reading this led me to conclude that reading more of Drexler and Wolf’s article might serve as another possible memory disrupting intervention to employ during the reconsolidation period. I’m guessing, if you’ve made it to this point in this blog, that you’re inclined to agree.

From a practical perspective, it’s good to know that, generally, memory reconsolidation can take up to six hours. And so, in addition to Tetris and reading intellectual research papers, there are other reasonable strategies you can use to facilitate healthy memory reconsolidation, not just on Memorial Day (or Night), but any time of the year—as long as you’re within the six hour memory consolidation window.

  • Talk with a trusted friend or counselor about the emotions you’re experiencing. Even better, don’t just talk about your emotional pain, but also talk about and focus on the strengths you have for coping with your challenging emotions.
  • Engage in a physically strenuous activity. This could involve some sort of strenuous physical activity like cycling, running, yoga, or weight-lifting.
  • Ritual is good. This could involve a culturally appropriate spiritual activity like going to a sweat lodge or attending a religious service.
  • Writing is a common and effective method for expressing emotions. In particular, writing about your loss in ways that are meaningful to you can be therapeutic.
  • There may be no better way to deal with problematic emotions than engaging in positive helping behavior. Alfred Adler called this social interest. When you’re triggered, consider ways in which you can shift the spotlight away from yourself and toward fostering wellness in others.

Memorial Day is an intentional memory day. We created it and we celebrate it. But you can have other, self-created memory days. And what we know about memory and the disturbing emotions that can accompany memories, is that they present us with an opportunity. Some researchers call this an opportunity for “updating.” Recognizing this opportunity and intentionally engaging in healthy and soothing behaviors when difficult memories are activated is good guidance. This might be Tetris. It might even involve singing along with Barbra Streisand in your best falsetto. The point is that we have power, albeit limited, to update our activated memories . . . and so I wish you the best in finding intentional and healthy ways to soften your painful memories. It’s the honorable thing to do.

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Talking with Kids about Trauma and Tragedy

             All too often, very bad and traumatic things happen in the world. Many of these terrible things find their way into the news. This can be shocking and depressing not only for the people who were directly affected, but also for the general public. We are often repeatedly exposed to words and images that can trigger emotional and behavioral reactions in adults and children. Below is a short list with brief descriptions of how adults can help children deal effectively with traumatic information from the news and other media sources.

TALKING WITH CHILDREN: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT REALITY

The first step in talking with children is always the opposite of talking. LISTEN. Listen for how children have been affected. Listen for what they’ve seen and heard. Listen for their fears and fantasies. Listen for their personal coping strategies and solutions.

It’s important to listen closely, but if you listen too hard for children to talk about trauma, you run the risk of making them think they SHOULD be traumatized. If this happens, then children often will start giving you what they think you want . . . they’ll start talking about trauma. Therefore, a big challenge for adults is to listen in a balanced way.  Don’t spend too much time everyday encouraging children to talk about their deepest fears. If you do, it’s possible that everyone will get more and more scared — including you!

Perhaps the biggest deal when talking with kids about real tragic events, is being able to answer their questions. They may ask you terribly hard questions, like, “Will there be a plane crashing in our neighborhood?” or “Do you think a shooter might come to our school?” or “Will I be safe at home?” or “Teacher, are you scared?”

Children often ask very good and very hard questions. An important guideline for teachers, parents, and counselors is to stay balanced. This means you can admit to being scared — as long as you also admit to being strong. Some children can quickly pick up on false reassurance, which is one reason why I’m not in agreement with Dr. Joyce Brothers who suggested after 9/11 that it was a good time to lie to your children. Instead, I recommend acknowledgement that the world is not always a safe place, but that you’ll do everything you can to be strong and help keep the child or children safe.

With preschoolers, there are some conversational topics that are best to avoid. For example, there’s no need to go into graphic detail about specific injuries, etc.  This is similar to the fact that very young children don’t need to know all the details about sexuality. It’s better to speak generally about violence and destruction. It’s also very important to protect your children from too much exposure to media coverage of violent events.

It’s also important to never forget about focusing on children’s strengths. Listening first provides you with a foundation for giving children feedback about their strengths. Be sure to listen for children’s strengths . . . and then reflect them back. You can also encourage children to tell you about their strengths – including both ways they’ve handled hard things in the past and ways they might handle hard things in the future.

 PLAYING WITH CHILDREN: REENACTMENT, PRETEND PLAY, AND MASTERY

Younger children will typically play out or reenact their traumatic experiences. For preschoolers pretend play will be the dominant way they deal with the trauma of what they’ve seen and heard. Around 9/11 children were likely to build towers and have them knocked down. They also enacted play activities involving airplanes, police, terrorists (or other “evil/bad” people). If they’ve been exposed to images and heard about school shootings you might see some play activities involving guns and death and loss. For the most part, it’s best to just sit back and watch children as they enact these scenes. By allowing them un-directed play time and some nondirective commentary, you’ll be helping them take their first steps toward healing (more information on non-directive play is included on the “Special Time” tip sheet on this blogsite).

On the other hand, sometimes children get stuck in the same repeated play pattern. This more chronic form of play is referred to as post-traumatic play. When children seem genuinely stuck repeating pretend interactions through non-interactive play that provides no apparent gratification, you may need to interact with them in ways that help them get un-stuck. You might want to try these strategies: (a) have the child stand up and take some deep breaths before resuming play; or (b) interact with the child in a way that disrupts the pattern (for example, you might ask, “what would happen if . . . ?”).

Obviously, rigid post-traumatic play patterns indicate a need for professional assistance.

 DRAWING WITH CHILDREN:  CAPTURING THE FEAR ON PAPER

Children’s fears can seem big and intimidating. That’s true for people of any age. Maybe that’s why, for adults and older children, writing about specific fears and trauma can be so helpful. Somehow, writing things down on paper can help to put it in perspective.

Younger children aren’t able to use the written word effectively for personal journaling. That’s where drawing comes in. When children color, draw, paint, or sculpt their fears, the fears become more manageable.

 STORYTELLING STRATEGIES

Storytelling is a very powerful tradition and technique for dealing with many human problems and challenges. Stories can be designed or obtained through published materials. In response to tragedy, it can be helpful for children to hear stories of bravery under difficult or perilous conditions.

If you choose to invent your own stories, be sure to create a story with a main character and a clear beginning, middle, and ending. If you’re comfortable with it, you can even have the children help invent characters and their own stories.

There are many ways to encourage children to make up stories of their own. The advantage of this is that you get to listen for the dynamics of the children’s story and so it provides some assessment information. As a counseling technique, it’s possible to use a pretend radio or television show. You can invite children to be guests on your “show” and interview them about their experience or have them share a story.

 HELPING WITH TRANSITIONS:

Separation anxiety is a common reaction that children have to stressful news or situations. This means children may have trouble saying goodbye to their parents and being left at school or day care. In most cases, it’s best for parents, children, and staff to develop an individualized goodbye and hello routine for drop-offs and pick-ups. These routines will be less necessary as time goes by, but it’s good to have goodbye and hello rituals there when you need them. For example, having a hello and goodbye song, transitional objects, and other objects of comfort can ease the pain of separation.

 HAVING FUN: USING DISTRACTION, HUMOR, AND PLAY TO MOVE PAST TRAUMA

Don’t forget, it’s easy to pay way too much attention to the traumatic news and ignore regular daily play routines. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s good to keep kids active and keep them having fun. It’s good to be prepared with some games, songs, or activities that you can rely on to engage children and help them forget about the bad news for a while.

 LEARNING ACTIVITIES: MASTERY THROUGH EDUCATION, SAFETY, AND SERVICE

Not only does life go on after a trauma; it’s important for life to keep getting better. Ways to move forward include (a) continuing with educational, skill-building, and stress management activities, (b) promoting safety strategies and skills, and (c) involving children in basic service activities . . . possibly even service activities that include teaching other children strategies for coping with trauma or difficult situations.

 GET HELP AS NEEDED

It’s a sign of strength to get help when it’s needed. You may notice specific reactions or experiences in children or yourself that indicate it’s time to for professional assistance. Some of the primary symptoms of trauma and vicarious trauma that can develop in these situations include the following:

  • Repetitive and intrusive thoughts and images.
  • Sleep problems: Insomnia, nightmares, and night terrors.
  • Separation Anxiety and clingy-ness.
  • Specific fears/phobias.
  • Hypervigilence.
  • Regression.

 SELF CARE NOW AND INTO THE FUTURE

Remember to take good care of yourself so you can be of greater help for others. This could involve many different activities including vigorous exercise, maintaining healthy eating and sleeping routines, and scheduling time for social contact and social support.

This Tip Sheet was written by John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., professor of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.