• jess

Involuntary memories, information processing, and PTSD

Hey y'all, how's your week going?


It's a sunshiney Wednesday morning over here, with a morning Archie walk that clocked in at 27 degrees Fahrenheit around 6am, and a high of 45 degrees that means I'll absolutely be taking an afternoon anxiety hike later.


In other news, I'm happy to say that this is essentially a zero-delay podcast coming at you. I had really been wanting to get back to the practice of talking to you guys on a real-time basis, because I think it's more connective and transparent. Unfortunately, my workaholic preparations started pushing my episodes to be recorded and pre-scheduled out for about a month... which, hey, worked out when chaos erupted, so I can't disregard that hypervigilant drive as being occasionally helpful. Who would have foreseen that shoe dropping? Luckily my paranoid brain is ready for disaster all the time. So, great.


Still, I'm actually pretty excited to be in the position of recording and recklessly hitting publish again. It feels more like a real conversation between us. It also makes this process a little more fun and spontaneous for me, rather than being so responsible and choosy. What am I going to say before closing my eyes and sending this audio into the podcasting atmosphere? Who knows! That's exciting, huh? It makes me feel more connected to what I'm choosing to write, record, and riff on. Plus, when Fuckers message in about the most recent episode, I guess I'll actually know which one you're talking about now. That's neat.


This time around, I thought I would get back in the saddle with a short research-based post that I had completed several weeks back. You know, probably time to stop complaining about my personal circumstances and put out some data-driven information.


Also, an apology for how incrementally pissy I have been and probably will continue to be for the foreseeable future. My fake sponsorships are probably going to have some bite - I'm feeling particularly snippy towards a few humans and circumstances. Just let me vent, it'll even out eventually.


Again, sorry about the recent dive into my own reflections and obligatory attendance of my personal pity party. I know, that's not what I'm here for, either. So, we're headed in the other direction for a beat. Gitting this shit back on track.


Today, I'm jumping into some brain inefficiencies that we deal with in regards to thoughts and memories in the wake of post-traumatic syndrome. I think it will explain a lot of cognitive struggles and fears of losing our fucking minds that we've all been questioning for some time now. Plus, give weight to that sensation of having a slow processor inside our heads.


Let's do it.




So, you know how I write for several other projects? If not, yeah, I do.


If you haven't seen my posts on the CPTSD Foundation yet - hey, they exist! Beyond that, there’s a science writing website called SciWorthy that I like to submit trauma articles to as a means of forcing them into the public sphere. Lastly, well, school took a lot of reading and writing this semester. Thanks to these outside gigs, I get a lot of CPTSD inspiration to share with you guys.


Most recently, I found myself perusing articles about memory and PTSD, because my class called for it and also because this is clearly relevant to Traumatized Motherfuckers. I think a lot of us have issues with absorbing information and translating it into useful memories efficiently. I know I do. Plus, you know, that informational misappropriation is essentially the whole basis of this trauma nightmare.


If it fits, I submits.


No surprise, I quickly found a really cool research article that covers some enlightening information that will probably make you feel better about those days when you have stimulation soup filling your brain or you can’t remember what you were supposed to knock off the to-do list, but you can very vividly recall everything that happened on your worst day in 3rd grade.


Turns out, when it comes to memories we have a lot of trauma garbage going on. Shocker. What area of our brain functioning isn’t affected by PTSD? Someone just tell me.


So, this post is about memory… but it also has a lot to do with an episode I put out recently, theorizing that our dual-brain system is to blame when we have personality or motivation “blackouts” and do things we swore we would not.


For instance, accidentally eating an entire bag of leftover Halloween candy without even realizing it. Then, suddenly snapping back into your body and realizing that your guts hurt with cheap chocolate and sugar bombs, unaware of who did the dastardly deed. Plus… eventually having to reckon with the aftermath when you return to your meat jacket - wondering how and why did this happen again?


It’s not a stretch to see how this proposed 2-brain switch applies to the memory information I’m about to give you. And tying those loose ends is pretty exciting. Turns out that there’s some legitimacy to my ramblings. That’s neat. I really should consider being a paid scientist again, instead of a broke one; these hypotheses be killing it lately.


Anyways, you’ll see. Let’s talk about what I’ve read and written recently. And, hell, head over to SciWorthy to read the summary article in question, if you're interested.





Why it’s difficult for anyone to make memories


So, besides having a trauma diagnosis, there are baseline physiology conditions that every human experiences which degrade our ability to make and retrieve memories. If you ever felt like your brain completely left your body during a time of extreme stress… it kind of did. You know it, Fuckers, we’re back to the whole survival brain discussion.


Turns out, even under acute stress our neurobiology is greatly affected. When the stress-based corticosteroids start flowing, our minds start going somewhere else. Specifically, our logical human brains (the prefrontal cortex) take a seat while our lizard brain steers the ship. We use our limited attentional resources to prioritize the basic functioning that keeps us breathing.


Nothing new here.


It feels like we're always talking about the rudimentary thinking system that humans prefer to ignore when we tackle life in the context of trauma. This is exactly what I was pointing to when I discussed our temporary dissociations leading to self-sabotaging, illogical behaviors. It's not exactly... us. So much as a conglomerate of experiences from our ancestors, programmed sneakily into our instruction manuals.


Well, during these times when our primitive thinkers are running the show under duress, guess what isn’t happening, besides executing will power and remembering who we really are as humans? Proper stimulation filtration or memory formation, that's what!


Under the influence of stress hormones, the old limbic system starts royally fucking things up like it’s the first day on the job and the prefrontal cortex general manager isn’t answering phone calls to reign in the disaster.


In practical terms, rather than dumb analogies, when you’re stressed out your brain starts utilizing resources differently. There's less need for high level thinking, more necessity for taking action. That's why it’s harder to make sense of the information streaming in through your external receptors, more strenuous to logically respond to it in a 21st century approved way, and nearly impossible to process it into a neat memory package that can be set aside in your historical storage compartment.


And it deserves to be explicitly pointed out that this is just referring to an effect caused by basic levels of stress. Such as, being in a public place when you have social anxiety or sitting down to take an exam. Even for a "normal" human, these mild stressors are enough to push your brain into a survival-strong, logically-weak place where information becomes overwhelming and your memory fails. Under these conditions, your brain can’t properly make new memories, and you also struggle to retrieve old ones. Everything becomes loose, unorganized data without an organized storage place.


Does this also remind you of the hypersensitivity/overload episode? It should. These neurological games are all interrelated.


In essence, our stimuli sorting centers get confused or shut down when we’re under stress. We're not good at efficiently analyzing and processing incoming data when our heads start promoting "oh shit" messengers and demoting the administrative folks who keep everything neat and tidy around the office. As a result, half-formed information starts swirling around.


Our human brains are out on a long lunch break so our survival brains can keep us on two feet, and meanwhile the building piles up with notes and memos that need to be dealt with later. As we're buried under piles of fragmented messages, we can’t make heads or tails of what’s right in front of us - the cues from our surroundings in this very moment. We also struggle to get a birdseye view of what’s happened in the past and how it all fits together like a puzzle looking into the future.


AKA. Super stimulatory overload. No ability to put files in the storage cabinets where they belong. No way to dig up the old packets that should be filed in a specific place, but seem to be missing in a locked corridor right now. Therefore, we have no option to update our old documents with the new material that's quickly streaming in. And, altogether, you get to enjoy a sense of losing your gotdamn mind.


Now, consider if this brain administrative strike takes place over long stretches of time. Instead of dealing with a tiny brain poot when you try to run into the grocery story and your anxiety kicks into gear, let’s say you’re chronically stressed for, I don’t know, two or ten or twenty years under the influence of Complex Trauma. How do you think this is going to interact with your brain? Poorly? Yeah, the answer is poorly.


Instead of having a half an hour of un-analyzed data to parse through, now we’re talking a decade or three of poorly-handled work to catch up on. There’s a massive stack of papers sitting in the corner while your brain has been turning the other direction to wait for intruders out the peephole of your front door. You haven’t put any of this information where it belongs, hell, you haven’t even begun to skim the documents… So your brain doesn’t simply see it for what it is - a collection of old memories with variable importance to your current circumstances.


How do you ever catch up with this clusterfuck of compounding data? How can you even see straight when your brain is so buried in a backlog of work? How do you get your memory formation and retrieval pathways back after years of undergrowth reclaiming the trails?


Well, it’s going to be an uphill battle to regain a sense of sanity. I can tell you that much.


Just like coming back from vacation and trying to catch up on all the work you've missed, the project plans that have changed, and keeping up with the new day to day pieces of your position, it's absolutely overwhelming to try to get a grip on your destroyed brain workspace after being out of the office for any amount of time.


Those times when you're most comfortable just staring off into space or really examining the qualities of a blank wall? Those are probably periods of brain resource rectification - toing the line between coming back into your "real you brain" and getting so stressed out again that you begin to revert to lizard brain mode. Attempting to process abundant information while your anxiety is crippling the whole venture. Buffering, if you will. Traumatized brains need a lot of extra time for cleaning, compressing, and filing information.


The downstream effects? Besides making it feel like you have chronic exhaustion, tunnel vision, and hypertension... I think a lot of us struggle with the feeling of losing our fucking minds. I think this is especially true when we weren’t always so challenged by focusing, remembering basic details, or putting new thoughts into a tidy order in our earlier lives.


All of that overload, confusion, and inability to direct our brain activities works to wear down our sense of control and confidence. It seems like our heads just don't operate with the same intent and interest that they used to. It's a bit like slipping into dementia while being acutely aware of the personality changes taking place.


We start fearing the mental illness that causes our fear. And fear will? Make your executive function and memory processing even worse? That's right. It fucking will. A vicious cycle is born.


As always, this energy diversion tactic and memory blocking theoretically makes sense in the name of survival. But it causes life destruction when you’re operating in the 21st century and intend to lead a societally-acceptable life. When you’re under stress, you’re underfunctioning in your brain. And none of us need any help with brain malfunctions in 2020.


Next up.





Trauma changes voluntary and involuntary memory processing


So, science has rightfully divided our memories into two categories - voluntary and involuntary. I think that makes sense to most of us who would rather forget all manner of unpleasant events - from deep traumas to those awkward social encounters in 8th grade that keep us awake at night.


Here’s the thing - they work through different mechanisms. Those intentional memory recalls take one brain, whereas the unwanted memories pop up through a different area of the brain. I’m not hypothesizing here; MRI scans prove this by detecting activity in dissimilar regions of the think-organ.


So, what happens when you compare PTSD subjects with non-PTSD subjects in a task that elicits voluntary or involuntary memory recall? Well, there are some key differences that shed light on our traditional trauma issues. Hall and associates showed this to be the case in their 2018 paper, Neural responses to emotional involuntary memories in posttraumatic stress disorder: Differences in timing and activity.


Briefly, researchers asked participants with and without PTSD symptoms to view pictures and write small blog blurbs as they listened to certain audible sounds. Some of these samples were neutral sounds and images, whereas some of them were purposely negative (some might say, triggering). Later, the sounds were replayed to the subjects as they were scanned by an MRI machine to detect areas and levels of activity in the brain as the participants experienced various memory recollections. At the end of each trial, individuals answered self-reporting surveys to categorize their memories as voluntary or involuntary in response to the presented sound.


The results? I bet you can guess. Yes, the same areas of the brain lit up for PTSD or non-PTSD subjects when they reported voluntary or involuntary memory recall. However, there was a notable delay in the voluntary memory recall for individuals with PTSD. This means, it takes longer for traumatized subjects to retrieve and process voluntary memories. AKA when we want to reach back for a specific piece of information, it takes a longer time for us to activate the right pathway and find the file we’re looking for.


Furthermore, these traumatized folks demonstrated heightened involuntary memory recall compared to the control.


Hey, who’s surprised by this? Not me. Most of us are well aware that our brains like to play and replay bad times on repeat. We’re masters of flashbacks, bad dreams, rumination, and those particularly vivid social failures that make you sit upright in bed at 3am without any priming. The information we’d like to forget tends to get implanted in the foreground of our thoughts, where the information we need to remember is slow to present itself. Sounds right.


Lastly, researchers found an upregulation in the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and fear responses. This was somewhat unexpected, because this area normally features a hypoactive level in traumatized subjects - we aren’t that good at emotional regulation, if you didn’t know. However, it makes sense when you consider our trigger happy fear response network.


Researchers explained that although subjects didn’t directly report feeling fear during the experiment, it was possible that they were experiencing the sensation at a low level below consciously detectable threshold… that still pinged their brain to register the threat. For those of us who have felt something all day, and later realized we were stressed, anxious, or fearful… I don’t think this is a stretch to imagine. Our brains don’t need to make themselves wildly obvious to our conscious minds for them to cause us to respond in our bodies, moods, and outward activities.


Overall, this study showed that there is a significant difference in the prominent pathways that our brains activate when compared to “regular” people. For everyone who has regularly felt different from their peers… well… There is some biological evidence for it. Your thinker works differently than others. I think we all realized that a while ago.


One additional thing that came to my mind regarding this study... these results were collected without a stress response being intentionally elicited in participants. What I mean is, it's possible that subjects had some heightened stress hormone levels in their bodies due to the triggering sounds, the MRI, the questionnaire, or just basic social anxiety from participating in the study. But they were not intentionally stressed or pushed into an extreme survival mode, as we commonly experience with PTSD.


This is to say... this research paper doesn't speak to how drastically our memory retrieval pathways can be affected with significant signals streaming in about potentially life-threatening stimuli. I would be interested to know just how slow our information buffering systems can get when our trauma brains are screaming "fire" all day long. How severely our memory control can be dampened or intrusively ramped up when we're in persistently triggered states.


But hey, at least this study shows that our premonitions of losing our brain faculties through PTSD is absolutely real. Your Momento-style memory is not a figment of rapidly loosening grip on reality. That's useful information to integrate, right?


Now what?





Wrap it


So, take this information and put it in your empowerment back pocket. Education leads to enlightenment, am I right? Or just annoying. I never know.


The point is, try to absorb that you aren’t broken and you aren’t doomed to have a subpar memory. Even if that’s something you’ve been shaming yourself about for two or twenty years, realize that there are measurable reasons for the experience you’ve been having.


You aren’t insane, you aren’t drowning in bad memories for no reason, and you haven’t lost your goddamn mind over time. Your head is just… traumatized. It doesn’t know how to handle information properly. It isn’t good at spotting real versus imagined threats. It gets confused a lot and loses important documents. This is especially true under the influence of continual stress responses… and shit, that's probably a big part of how you got here in the first place.


So… if you can, try not to freak out about how your brain makes you freak out. Easier said than done, I know. But taking an objective, curious approach to your faulty brain programming can be very enlightening. Try to kick back and take notes, recognizing that you're observing some really interesting evolutionary biology at work.


If you can live with it comfortably, recognize that there’s no doubt, currently, your brain tends to prioritize the wrong activities. You might reach information after a prolonged period of inactivity. You might have to work doubly hard to pull data from your head. At times when you’d rather have control of your thoughts, involuntary memories might pop up to throw you for a loop.


But, realizing that there's a cause for the red wire leading to the blue terminal, and the yellow circuit seems to just loop pointlessly in a tangled mess can be helpful, too. It means you can theoretically work to rewire these well-intended but idiotically enacted engineering oversights. And that is empowering, right?


If you can calm your system, cut down your stress hormones, and start to rebuild bridges from your perceptual centers to your memory storage units to strengthen your memory retrieval pathways… you’ve got a real shot at turning this game around. You can repair your memory. You can get rid of those intrusive, unwanted recollections. You can reduce your buffering time. You can even cut down your low-key fear responses.


You just have to get started.


Find practices that reduce your stress. Get out and work through your feelings on a regular basis with outdoor excursions. Learn grounding techniques to handle your less desirable memories. Practice (fuck me) meditation techniques however they fit into your life and whatever you can muster without going insane. Try to observe your inner world rather than judging it. Then, start to arrange your days around the changes that you want to see in yourself. Change the circuitry of your brain one moment at a time. Figure out how to push your attention in the right direction. Trust that it’s doable! Believe that when you'd rather throw in the towel and call yourself a broken robot, you're not alone.


This complex trauma thing is mysterious… but it’s just your brain gone off the wall. Change is possible. You aren’t the only one figuring out how.






That's it, guys. Thanks for sticking it out and learning a bit about trauma neurocircuitry with me today. You never know when you're going to hear a piece of information that has huge implications for your own life and understanding ... you might just need some extra time to put that data in the right place.


In case you wanted something else to think about, I have some exciting news. Thanks to a particularly generous MF, we're hosting a free tee shirt giveaway from now until December 24th! Submit your name and email to be entered in the drawing - no strings attached. I'll announce the winner around Christmas, and you'll get a free Traumatized Motherfucker tee courtesy of someone among us with a big heart. Go to t-mfrs.com/contest to sign up. Again, you have until December 24th. Get that entry in!


If you're looking for some new Motherfucking gifts for yourself or others, check out the merch I've added to the online store. Tees, stickers, and mugs! There are several original designs being added in the near future, so keep an eye out and check back often.


Another huge thank you to everyone who has been so fucking kind as to send supportive emails and donations - both really make a difference in keeping my messy, disorganized head focused in the right direction. Your feedback matters to me, it's regularly the boost that I need to pull my head out of my own ass when I start getting defeatist about things. Plus, I can't begin to tell you how much the Patreon and Paypal submissions help to relieve some of my work stress. As an independent contracted writer, I only have so many words to go around each day.. and at this point, I'm hammering out upwards of 15,000 on a good one. Your support really matters for keeping Traumatized Motherfuckers moving forward. Thank you, from me, Archie, and thousands of complex trauma sufferers around the world.


I also just wanted to give a quick heads up that I think the time has come... I'm closing the free Discord community enrollment for a few months. I feel like we have enough active members at this point to be on the cusp of overwhelm, rather than sharing-supporting intimacy. At least, that's how I'm feeling after coming back from my dad-death-deluge and realizing there are people in the community that I don't have the same degree of one-on-one familiarity with... and considering I'm the one who reads applications and let's them in, how the fuck must everyone else feel? Eek.


If you still want to be a part of the community, no worries! It's not going away, I just want to be careful with the onslaught of members. Just fill out the application at t-mfrs.com/join and I'll let you know when open enrollment begins again. Spring cleaning will open up some spaces - hint, hint, for those who joined but haven't been active yet. Alternatively, fuckit, you know what? I'll let you buy your way in if you don't want to wait for the free slots to be sorted. Subscribe to the $5 tier on Patreon and I'll push your application to the top of the list when a slot opens. Subscribe at least $10 and I'll grant immediate entry. Why not. Right now membership can be bought just like our national government.


Lastly, if you'd be so kind, please consider finding Traumatized Motherfuckers on the social medias, follow, like, and share the message. Rate the podcast and leave a comment. Sign up for the youtube channel that I largely neglect. Tik-tweet it, or whatever the fuck the kids are doing these days. Generally, give me a hand and do all the things that determine the fate of every modern organization? Otherwise all my pre-scheduled instagram posts are for nothing but my own enjoyment... of which, I have none. Give my misguided social efforts some love and help spread the motherfucking word? I'd really appreciate it.


Alright, that's it from the catchup corner. Thanks for listening Fuckers, you're awesome, and I'll talk to you soon.



Traumatized Motherfxckers

Not doomed. Not damaged.

Not dead yet.

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