Stress can wipe out memory

Memory is stored indelibly when an event shakes our world. We can all remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when 9/11 occurred. Stress at exam time helps us commit more to memory. Up to a point, then, stress helps store memory.

Knowing this, people who do not understand trauma have difficulty accepting that intolerable stress can wipe out memory, as it often does in childhood abuse. My own book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist: A Memoir of Healing and Transformation tells my story of uncovering memories of child sexual abuse when I was almost 50.

I know it’s amazing. But it’s true. The normal child’s brain does not store what is too terrible to survive. Forgetting allows the child to continue to live within that family or situation when no other life is possible. After all, a child can’t decide to live elsewhere.

I’m always surprised when I meet otherwise intelligent people who cannot fathom that it’s possible to wipe out a childhood history of betrayal by the adults who were supposed to protect you. I forget that many people still are not aware of the prevalence of child abuse.

Recently, I told a neighbour the subject of my recently published book. This well educated, caring man expressed disbelief. It was really a stretch for him to view me as one who had been traumatized by child sexual abuse. I don’t look like Precious (from the movie of the same name), after all, and I didn’t grow up in a slum. That I could have forgotten the abuse in my childhood until I was nearly 50 was mind boggling for the poor man.

It takes some effort to learn about memory storage and to understand how something too terrible to remember, a secret too awful to know, can be pushed into the unconscious to allow the child to survive.

Do you have an experience to share? I’d like to hear from you in the section for comments on this blog.

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