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How Trauma Alters Memory; Why Every EFT Practitioner Should Know About the Amygdala and Hippocampus

How Trauma Alters Memory

Here is the obvious. If you use EFT yourself or with others, you are using the process of memory. If you are seriously doing EFT with others, if you have not yet, then you will run into trauma. Even if you are working on knee pain or an allergy to ice cream. It is bound to show up and you will not know it based on the person’s presenting complaint. So the more you understand about how memory works, especially traumatic ones, the more effective you will be.

Anyone using EFT summons the ability of a person to remember events from the past. We often consider memory, especially our own, to be a bunch of facts from the past, recorded as if a documentary film-maker in our brains accurately recorded just what happened. Hah! Tapping sessions nearly always recall a past event that involved stress, negative emotions, suffering or even a traumatic response. Sometimes our clients remember very little about a traumatic event, other times they recall events in vivid detail. It is also common, for those practitioners who have learned to safely and slowly work with trauma, that “trauma capsules” (listen to my interview with Robert Scaer, MD) when opened, can reveal a great deal of sensory information and memories that had been submerged or seemingly forgotten. Our work as practitioners often involves working hand in hand with individuals, time-traveling to the past, and it behooves us to understand a bit more about how the brain integrates, processes, stores and recalls information, especially with regard to trauma. That being said, I thought I would summarize some of the most current neuroscientific understandings in a post that could help anyone understand it. Knowing that it has taken me several times of hearing the explanation of it to fully grasp and remember it, I thought I might offer it in a simple to digest explanation.

Trauma Pioneers

There are too many wonderful authors and leading edge thinkers in the fields of neuroscience, trauma work, memory, somatic therapies and more that offer these explanations better than I. The seminal work of brilliant ones like Bessel van der Kolk, Robert Scaer, Allan Schore, Stephan Porges, Dan Siegel and more are continual sources of information and inspiration to me. Recently I found myself immersed in Babette Rothschild’s book, “The Body Remembers” that offered an explanation and approach to working with trauma in such a way that I was inspired to put it into my own frame of reference and offer it up to my readers.

To understand memory, especially with regards to traumatic memories, it is helpful to understand a few important parts of the brain, most importantly the limbic system. This system has three main players; the hypothalamus that is the home of our survival instincts and regulates the autonomic (what I call the automatic) nervous system, controlling our responses and reactions to stress, ie the fight, flight and freeze responses, amongst many other tasks like regulating temperature, our need to eat and drink and more. The limbic system includes the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which are really important. They are key players in the chain of events that take an experience from the present moment to data that is stored in our hard drives that we call the neocortex, which ultimately acts as the CEO of our lives with ultimate executive control (as long as its working properly and no off-line because of stress!).

I would wager that most of you have heard of these parts, and maybe once knew what they did but may have forgotten. That’s ok. While I may oversimplify some of this neuroscience , it is done this way in the hope of setting a beginning foundation that you can build upon over time and repetition. Understanding this anatomy can go a long way in helping both the EFT practitioner and client to understand why they remember some things clearly and not for dear life remember other things.

Meet Your Amygdala

I think of the amygdala as a satellite dish that is never turned off and receives emotional and sensory information which it then processes and passes along to get stored in our cortex. I think of my amygdala as my security camera, that act as an early warning system in the middle of my head, working to keep me safe from harm. I remember exactly this function. When I was young, I was a competitive tennis player and my dad was my coach. He was often torn as he knew that I would get very anxious and play worse when he was watching me, he would attempt to hide in his car or behind trees so he could watch me play, attempting to not have me aware of his presence. Bad strategy. First he would never have made a successful surveillance officer. Second, even if I could not detect his presence, I was constantly scanning the perimeter for him to covertly appear. I can still recall that that sense of hypervigilance and overactive amygdala with its associated tightness in my solar plexus.

The amygdala’s purpose is to take in sensory information from the environment, most especially regarding emotionally charged experiences and to assist in its storage that can come in handy at a future date. It offers immediate warnings to know whether to batten down the hatches (emotionally and physically), to send immediate messages of engagement instructions as to whether to find safety (by attacking or fleeing) or to continue forward without worry. This is also where it works in tandem with other parts of the brain recalling similar past scenarios to see if they offer useful information to help better decide what to recommend in this present moment. (Is this starting to make sense as to why when we are tapping on an event and shifting aspects start appearing that throw us or our clients into related but totally other events that resemble the one we were just working on?). Apparently this structure is of critical significance for our survival because from day one, we are born with our amygdala already fully mature. (Did you know that? I didn’t!). So when you walk into a room of new people, you may get a sense, to the extent you can, that your amygdala is on online attuning your eyes, ears, and all your other sense organs to determine if this room is safe so you can relax, engage and learn without being on high alert. Of course a past history of trauma will affect that scenario so that the degree of alertness and sensitivity toward danger is affected. (This is why current research is finding such a high degree of returning veterans who develop PTSD, having had prior childhood experiences of traumatic experiences. Robert Scaer refers to these earlier events traumatic events prior to PTSD as “kindling.”

Meet Your Hippocampus

The amygdala’s key partner is the hippocampus. (While elephants are known as the “memory keepers of the pachyderms,” known to never forget, perhaps the “hippos” are equally facile at remembering. If not, it’s at least good memory jogger to recall what the hippocampus does!). It acts like an “experience date-stamper” recording what, where, when, etc. It processes the data of our experiences, date stamps it, and creates a linear time line that gives events a context, with a sense of time and place for when we recall them at a later date. Recently I learned that unlike the amygdala, it does not mature until we are 2-3 years old.

So when as parents we watch an infant observing and responding emotionally to our facial expressions of googley or sad face, apparently the necessity of remembering the order of such observations is not so critical. The date stamping apparently not yet required for future access. Much speculation has been made that this helps to explain why memories before the age of 3 are much less accessible and may have a very different and more vague quality to them, having no context or date associated with them.

So how does this relate to EFT and especially to trauma? Good question. Guess what happens during stressful experiences that involve rapidly increasing stress, a sense of helplessness, an inability to escape a situation that feels threatening or overwhelming? (Characteristics of a traumatic experience.) Well, the amygdala goes into overdrive, pulling in gigabytes of both external environmental information, as well as internal physical-response information, that it can and process each millisecond. Stress hormones are secreted (adrenaline and noradrenaline are like the short term “sprinters” of stress, while cortisol has the ability to be a long-distance marathon runner, like an energizer bunny that can keep going and going and going!), that do many, many things in the body (from sending blood flow and oxygen to muscles, increasing heart rate and respiration, reducing pain), but most importantly here, they can effectively put a kabosh on the hippocampus!

So during traumatic events, the amygdala is processing all kinds of important information received by our sense organs to be stored, that may not be accurately date stamped. Some theorize that this may explain why people who suffer from PTSD have difficulty when they are emotionally flooded by some trigger associated with the offending trauma, (ie flashbacks) and are unable to accurately place themselves in the present moment vs. feeling like they are right back in the original trauma.

Other research has studied the brains of people diagnosed with PTSD and found them to have smaller hippocampi (the plural of hippocampus, not hippocampuses). The enduring question about this finding is whether those who have PTSD and thus live with elated stress hormones, have their volume reduced by these stress chemicals or perhaps theirs were of smaller size from the outset, which made them more vulnerable to developing post-traumatic stress disorder. The big picture is that a reduced size or functioning of the hippocampus may very well reduce our ability to cope with life’s stressful events.

So, how does this apply to tapping?

1. Well, when tapping, you can now better understand the supposedly “random” shifting aspects consisting of distantly related memories that just drop in during a tapping round. Remember, that neurons that fire together, wire together!

2. You can now better understand why when someone can become flooded with emotion when recalling a past trauma; an important part of their brain (sounds like bippo…) is working less than optimally, and they can lose track of whether they are in the present or past. This is why it is important to keep their eyes open and work incredibly slowly and gently and help them to stay in the present moment, even purposely helping them with dissociative techniques like Matrix Reimprinting to prevent them from becoming re-traumatized.

3. You can use this understanding to help your client feel more at ease when they struggle with trying to remember elements of their past and they complain that they cannot remember anything, especially when they have a large number of ACES or Adverse Childhood Experiences.

I hope this article has been helpful and I look forward to writing more on similar topics, especially if you agree and wish me to….

Craig Weiner, DC
The Art and Science of EFT