Some therapeutic approaches for PTSD are effective. Yet too many who suffer from PTSD do not get the relief they seek. As a trauma therapist, I have treated too many clients who’ve told me that they’ve spent years in treatment without getting the relief they seek.
If you have PTSD, or know someone close to you who has PTSD, you may be looking for a type of therapy that will actually help.
How PTSD works
PTSD occurs when a person is overwhelmed by an experience such as an accident, physical harm or other forms of exposure to trauma. People can experience PTSD as intense and uncontrolled triggering. For example, a person can have an intense reaction every time someone yells because this person grew up in a family where yelling preceded something worse. Again, you may remember or not remember that specific event. However, your body remembers and can experience a reaction long after these events have happened, whether through thoughts, emotions, or other physical sensations.
For some, PTSD can shut a person down to the point of not being able to function. For others, reactions can be more subtle and insidious, such as distrusting others, experiencing low self-esteem, lacking confidence, or feeling dismissed, abandoned or not heard. The point is, whether you remember or not, you can have emotional scars and hardships that are from your past.
Memory Reconsolidation makes overcoming PTSD possible
We cannot change your past, but in trauma therapy, we can make the memory of the past feel more distant and erase the fear-based emotions. This is where memory reconsolidation comes into play – using a technique called ART (Accelerated Resolution Therapy). ART is a newer and more successful method that is derived out of an older method called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). ART is unlike traditional methods of therapy and it offers you a much more streamlined approach for success and recovery.
In essence, memory reconsolidation occurs when the brain accesses an older memory (or memories) and then alters that memory, creating a new one. Our brains are designed to update our memories using its natural and adaptive capabilities. Think about how you overcome a fear; you face it head on. Whether that’s fear of public speaking, getting on skis for the first time, or even when you first learned how to ride a bicycle. The fear is there and you face it and you overcome it. PTSD recovery is just like that, only coached and carefully delivered by a trauma-informed therapist.
In therapy, we access the brain’s natural way of updating long-term memories in a guided process. This is good news: the brain can unlearn your response to unwanted memories! It works across various types of PTSD issues such as a hypervigilant behavior, avoidance, or intrusive memories that won’t go away.
Memory reconsolidation in dissociated memories
Perhaps your body holds a painful memory from early childhood that causes you to react in a negative way. You want to change your behavior or emotions, but you cannot recall where your issues started, yet you suspect there is something from your past. Even with this type of unknown past, memory reconsolidation can help.
Memory reconsolidation can work for those with complex PTSD and heightened responses where one may assume healing is not possible. Yet healing is possible. Complex PTSD is often caused by one or more events from early childhood, resulting in severe childhood stress, and often results from primary caregivers who themselves have their own difficult past. You may not remember these memories because it has been helpful for your brain to disassociate from the pain.
Through the process of therapy, more of the memories can start coming back and new pathways can be established.
How memory reconsolidation works
Our brains are complex and we are still learning a lot about memory. One thing we do know: our memories are stored and received in the brain and in the nervous system—and nowhere else. When new memory is created, there are new synaptic connections made between our brain cells, also known as neurons. We have different types of memories, such as explicit knowledge of familiar things like places and people, and implicit memories such as how we navigate our surroundings. You can learn more about how memories are formed and updated through the PBS Nova program called “Memory Hackers”.
We are constantly updating our memory —it is what we do our whole life. Memory reconsolidation alters our long-term memory. Our brains do that by recalling the memory into short term memory and then, while that short-term memory is alive, we create a new neural pathway so you build a different experience and quick response to that memory.
Knowing that memory can be updated brings hope for unwanted PTSD memories. We just need to access and alter the pathway of these unwanted synaptic connections.
Here is a simple everyday example of how updating memory works: you have driven on a freeway for years where the speed has been 65mph. Through the habit of driving this familiar road, you have consolidated this memory into long-term memory so that the 65mph speed limit persists and is easily and automatically remembered. Then one day, the speed is decreased to 55mph. But with new practice, your brain can learn to instantly recall a new speed limit. It may take a few reminders driving along this freeway, but eventually, your brain will replace that old memory of 65mph to 55mph into your long-term memory. The road is still familiar but you updated your memory of the speed limit.
We used to think that our long-term memories could never be changed. That is only true until they are recalled. Memories are actually now understood as fragile and are subject to alterations when then they are recalled and brought up into short-term memory. Said a different way, as this is an important point, the process of recalling memories into our short-term memory makes our memories “unstable” and subject to change—until they are once again “consolidated” and placed once back again into our “stable” long term memory. During this stage of recall, at cellular level, certain neurons can literally grow new branch connections to other neurons. So—because our memories are fragile and subject to alterations, memory can be “edited” and rebuilt so that healing happens. That is memory reconsolidation in therapy.
When a person has PTSD, unwanted long-term memories of trauma do not fade like normal memories do, but instead stay fresh and can be recalled into short-term memory as if we are living with the experience with no sense of the past. The debilitation of PTSD can cause someone to think it just won’t go away and therapy cannot help.
Yet what we now know about the brain gives new methods of healing for those suffering from PTSD. Recalling a memory gives the opportunity to make the memory “impressionable” for change. That is amazing. This is such positive news: we can actually “build the world that we want to experience”. You do not need to suffer from recalling the past over and over again. Nor do you need to even heighten your suffering by talking about it and reliving the experience. Instead you can actually erase your fear responses to these harsh memories.
But how does memory reconsolidation actually work in therapy?
Through a guided session, long term memories are brought into short-term memory—gently and carefully—so that as a memory is recalled, it is experienced in a supportive state of ease. Through a calming approach, you learn to separate your sensations as you remember your experiences. This includes not requiring you to repeat and talk about your story, which can relock you once again into a fear response. Your old feelings are extinguished with new feelings—and you replace them within the safety of confidence, ease, security and comfort. Your nervous system learns to respond differently to whatever stimulus has been difficult.
I work Accelerated Response Therapy (ART) and I see positive responses from my clients in as little as 1 to 5 sessions. Session time is shortened because, again, you do not talk through the memory. Instead, you mentally just touch upon a memory, while being guided on how to stay calm and relaxed. So, together we edit your responses and guide your neural pathways to build that new response.
For more information on Memory Reconsolidation I suggest watching the Nova program “Memory Hackers”.
If you are interested, please contact me for a free consultation appointment and I can explain further, or set up a first appointment to see if Accelerated Response Therapy (ART) that incorporates memory reconsolidation will work for you—which I am confident it will.